- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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INDIANAPOLIS -- While the payoff moment was watching Tamika Catchings grab that WNBA championship trophy and hoist it over her head, tears streaming down her face, it was just that -- a single moment.
Championships aren't built on a single anything. They are a compilation of moments and performances, hardships and triumphs. They are a blessed combination of the efforts of coaches and players and general managers, and even when an athlete as singular as Catchings -- one of the most beloved players in the WNBA -- gets what she has so obviously deserved by virtue of the Indiana Fever's 87-78 victory in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Sunday night, there's so much more to it.
The Fever didn't look like anybody's obvious pick to win the WNBA title at the midway point of the season, probably not even heading into the playoffs. Heading into the Olympic break they were 10-7, not playing terribly consistent basketball, searching for their groove.
Catchings returned from London with a gold medal and said she immediately saw a difference in her Fever teammates.
They looked better.
"You could visibly see it," Catchings said. "You could see the intensity and the fire in everybody and just what we could accomplish as a team."
Still, the picture was taking a long time coming into focus. Late-season head injuries kept guards Briann January and Shavonte Zellous out of games down the stretch. Yet Indiana hung on to its No. 2 seed in the East.
The Fever opened their first playoff series against Atlanta with a loss and had to rally to win two in a row. Did the same thing in the conference finals against conference champion Connecticut -- and lost heart-and-soul Katie Douglas to a nasty ankle injury.
And then came the WNBA Finals. Without Douglas, Indiana was viewed as a heavy underdog to the defending champion Minnesota Lynx. The word "sweep" got thrown around.
"On paper, it doesn't look like we were supposed to win," Fever coach Lin Dunn said. "You know what I'm saying? They had three Olympians and we had one. They had a longer bench than we did. But only five people can be on the floor at a time and I thought the people we had were so focused on winning a championship."
In other words, the Fever summoned their moments.
They shocked Minnesota at home by taking both the initiative and the series lead with a victory in Game 1. They took a lead on the Lynx in Game 2 before Minnesota rode a big third quarter to the win.
And then they went home and found more than mere moments, but momentum.
It was January, who missed most of last season with a torn ACL, playing absolute lock-down defense Sunday against Minnesota's Seimone Augustus, who finished the night 3-for-21 from the floor and sitting on the Lynx's bench.
Erin Phillips, so stung by her exclusion from the Australian Olympic team, hitting some huge shots and finishing Game 4 with 18 points and eight rebounds.
Zellous busting out a career-high 30 points in Game 3 and 15 points in Game 4.
Erlana Larkins, who spent the past two years out of the league, dominating the boards and being a difference-maker underneath the glass in three of the four games of the series. Dunn said Indiana's chances of winning the title without Larkins were "slim and none."
And it was even the venerable Douglas, the Indiana native who didn't play a minute of the Finals until Dunn subbed her in with 3.2 seconds to go. Douglas stood in front of the scorer's table and embraced Zellous, who was on her way out of the game, before going in to finish on the floor when the buzzer sounded.
"I am so proud of everybody in this room," Phillips said. "We gave it everything and [the Lynx] gave it everything at us, and I'm just relieved more than anything because we deserved this."
Minnesota, the team with the best record in the league all season, honestly couldn't argue. The Lynx played from behind in this series in almost every way, from dropping Game 1 at home to the deficits that constantly bore down from the scoreboard.
The Lynx were down early again Sunday, closed to tie the score with 2 minutes, 40 seconds left in the third quarter, but could never grab a lead after the first basket of the game.
"That was the way it was for the most part throughout the whole series," said guard Lindsay Whalen, who led her team with 22 points and single-handedly kept the Lynx in the game for long stretches, scoring when nobody else could. "We put ourselves in some holes and you're playing against a team like Indiana in the Finals and it just becomes hard to overcome that."
Maya Moore, who finished the series with a 16-point game, said Minnesota "just couldn't find it" during the Finals series.
"It was players making plays," Moore said. "We went too long without responding or overcoming our mistakes in Game 1 and Game 3. It doesn't feel good to have it happen that way, but I'd rather go down to a team that played like Indiana did than down to a team that didn't deserve it."
The Fever just followed their game plan.
"Whoo!" January said, looking at the box score and high-fiving Catchings.
"We said it day after day. We knew we had to be in attack mode. We had to keep pressuring them, we had to make them uncomfortable."
The Lynx were vying to become the first team to win consecutive titles since Los Angeles in 2001 and 2002.
"It was hard being the hunted," said Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve, who already was hoping that her players go back to being the hungry group they were before they won a title in 2011. "I think now that something was taken away from us and we are no longer defending champs, it will be nice to start fresh."
One moment at a time.
14dBonnie D. Ford