- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Sometimes, Indiana rookie guard Layshia Clarendon suddenly will remember that her down-to-earth, low-key, friendly teammate is actually a very big deal.
"I see the way people cheer for her, the way the other team reacts when they announce her name," Clarendon said. "And I think, 'Oh, my gosh, that's right. This is the Tamika Catchings, three-time gold medalist, awesome community leader.' They are those 'oh wow' moments. But she makes you feel like she's just another person."
Of course, Catchings isn't just another player. She is a future Hall of Famer, someone who is at least in the MVP discussion every WNBA season. And in the Fever's Eastern Conference first-round series victory over Chicago, Catchings displayed her usual relentlessness. She was the best player on the court.
Sorry, Sky, but you'll just have to chalk this one up to a hard lesson. Chicago finished first in the East, but had its season ended decisively by Catchings and the Fever, 79-57, Sunday. Catchings led the way with 18 points and 12 rebounds, her 20th double-double in 49 career playoff games.
"She carries this team," Fever coach Lin Dunn said. "Often in her career, she's been overlooked, but she does so many things on both ends of the floor."
In some ways, though, it's less that Catchings is overlooked than she is taken for granted. But this year, with players such as center Jessica Davenport and guard/forward Katie Douglas out virtually all season with injuries, the Fever had to rely on Catchings as much as ever.
And the Tennessee graduate -- who turned 34 in July -- came through once again. Sunday was the Fever's largest margin of victory in a playoff game, and came two days after an 85-72 win Friday in Chicago. Catchings had 11 points, six rebounds and four assists, plus – as always -- set the tone defensively in Game 1. There was no backing down from the Fever in Game 2; if anything, they were even more intense.
The Sky might have been the East's No. 1 seed and the Fever No. 4, but Indiana had won the regular-season series 3-1 and was appearing in the postseason for the 10th time. Meanwhile, this was Chicago's first playoff appearance, and it looked like it. The Sky were pretty much whipped in every facet of play.
Defending WNBA champion Indiana led by 20 at halftime, and it never seemed as if the Sky had a realistic chance to catch up. The Sky shot 29.8 percent (17 of 57), were outrebounded 38-30, and were outscored in the paint 34-24.
"I look at areas of play where we were basically dominated," Sky coach Pokey Chatman said. "In terms of the boards, second-chance [points], paint points -- and that can't happen. The result: 17 made field goals.
"We knew coming in it wouldn't be a different game plan from Indiana, because they had success before. So it was a matter of us connecting some of the dots, and being high-IQ basketball players, making reads and plays. It gets down to toughness -- loose balls, rebounds, deflections. I'm disappointed that we went out like this; I like this team; I understand the areas we need to grow."
To do that, no team could be a better example for the Sky to follow than Indiana. Let's certainly not forget that the Fever have taken their lumps and shed bitter tears of frustration over the years, too, at playoff disappointments since the franchise began in 2000.
Catchings, the No. 3 pick in the 2001 draft, couldn't play that season because of a torn ACL she suffered her senior season in college, but then she helped lead the Fever to the playoffs in her rookie-of-the-year season of 2002. But it would take a decade before the Fever won the WNBA title in 2012, which was their ninth appearance in the playoffs.
"The way we had the upper hand was experience," Dunn said of this series. "That's a very, very talented team [in Chicago]. Do not underestimate the value of experience -- we've won a championship, and we've been in the Finals before [in 2009]."
All true, but there's a lot of talent on this Indiana team, too. Guard Shavonte Zellous, a fifth-year pro, was given the league's most improved player award before the game, as she nearly doubled her season scoring average from 2012 (7.5 ppg to 14.7).
Zellous, who had team-high 20 points Friday, scored 10 Sunday. Erlana Larkins, who like Zellous was such a key player during the 2012 WNBA Finals, had a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds, plus held her own against Sylvia Fowles inside.
Fowles had 14 points and 14 rebounds, with Epiphanny Prince and 2013 rookie of the year Elena Delle Donne scoring 10 points each.
Indiana has just four available players off the bench, but got 23 points out of them, led by Clarendon's nine. The Fever shot 45.8 percent from the field Sunday, after a 50.8 percent performance on Friday. Very impressive, especially for a team known for its defense. Dunn joked that maybe the Fever were making so many shots because they spent so much time in practice playing defense that they really enjoyed shooting in the games.
Now the Fever await the winner of Monday's deciding Game 3 between No. 2 seed Atlanta and No. 3 Washington; either way, Indiana will travel for Thursday's first game of the East finals, since the Fever are the lowest seed.
But Indiana has played well from that position of late: This was the third series in a row, dating back to 2012, where Indiana won as the lower seed. The Fever beat East No. 1 Connecticut and West No. 1 Minnesota in last year's playoffs.
"We came into this series knowing Chicago had three really good players, and we had to defend at a high level," Zellous said. "And I think we did that. I think now our goal is to try to get back to the Finals. So whatever it takes."
18dBonnie D. Ford