Tamika Catchings Hopes to Stow Last Year's Pain Away Behind WNBA Title
And yet, the emotional part of Catchings knows that last year's pain of getting oh so close to her first professional title with the Indiana Fever won't go away unless it's replaced by the joy of winning it all next month.
"For me, it was really disappointing to make it all the way there and have a chance ... right in front of your home crowd to finish it off and not take care of business and have to go there," said Catchings.
To recap, the Fever, having finally dispatched their longtime nemesis, the Detroit Shock, in the Eastern Conference Finals, held a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five WNBA Finals last year against the Phoenix Mercury. Game Four, the potential clincher, was to take place at Conseco Fieldhouse.
For the first time in the franchise's 10-year history, the Fever had made a connection with the Indianapolis community, so much so that Conseco was stuffed to the gills for a third straight sellout.
Even Pacers team president and Indiana icon Larry Bird, who made the first sellout possible by buying out the upper deck in Game 3 of the East Finals, was there, seemingly placing his stamp of approval on the coronation that what was about to happen.
And then ... it all went kerpluff, kerplow, kerplewie.
The Fever dropped a 90-77 decision to the Mercury, then had to go back to Phoenix for the deciding Game Five. Catchings got Indiana to within two with a minute to play, but Phoenix hit eight free throws down the stretch to take the title, 94-86.
Catchings, 31, said she delayed going overseas to play in Europe after last year's WNBA playoffs until January to give herself more time to grieve.
"When you get that close, it really is tough," said Indiana coach Lin Dunn. "You get a taste of almost winning a championship, it really is hard. It's heartbreaking. I still can't look at the fourth game. We should have won that fourth game in our place."
The Fever appeared to still be feeling the effects of the collapse of Game Four in the early going this season. Indiana dropped their first two games and lost three of their first five, before winning seven of 10 in June.
Absent a three-game hiccup at the end of July, the Fever have righted the ship and taken control of the Eastern Conference. They can clinch home court advantage throughout the conference playoffs with a win Tuesday night at New York and a Washington loss at San Antonio.
"Of course, that feeling is still there. That disappointment is still there," said Catchings. "But I look at this year's teams and the players we have on it. I think the only thing that can really hold us back, which is probably true for any team, is ourselves."
"We're a great defensive team. When everybody's playing together and when we finish our defensive possession with a rebound, we're a great team."
For Indiana, great defense doesn't necessarily mean forcing an opponent to take a bad shot. The Fever lead the WNBA in steals, and Catchings, a 6-foot-1 forward, is the prime thief.
A three-time league Defensive Player of the Year, Catchings is particularly gifted at getting her long arms into passing lanes and picking off passes, as she is the league's individual leader in steals.
"She's a superb defender," said Washington guard Alana Beard, who has played with Catchings in Poland. "You know that you're not going to be able to run the play that's set because she's going to force you out of that play. So, you're going to have to have an alternative move when she's guarding you. She's the whole package, offensively and defensively."
While her defensive prowess was well known, Catchings (shown here during last year's Finals), has stepped up her offensive output. Dunn said Catchings hired a shooting coach, Marvin Harvey, a Tampa-based "shot doctor" in the offseason and the results are obvious. The nine-year veteran, who had never shot above 43 percent from the field in any of her previous WNBA seasons, is hitting 49 percent of her shots from the field this year.
In addition, Catchings is shooting a career-best 43.3 percent from three-point range, and is averaging 18.1 points a game, her best scoring average since her second season.
As a result, she was named Eastern Conference Player of the Month for July and for the first week of August.
"There's been a great deal of talk in her being an MVP candidate through the years," said Dunn. "Maybe the one thing that's held her back was a low shooting percentage, but that's not true this year."
Indeed, Catchings, the only player to rank among the top 15 in points, rebounds and assists, is in the thick of what appears to be a three-player Most Valuable Player race with Seattle's Lauren Jackson and Cappie Pondexter of New York. She already has seven top-five finishes in MVP voting over the past eight years, with runner-up placements in 2002, 2003 and last season.
An MVP trophy, along with a gold medal for being a member of the United States world championship team, would be nice pieces of hardware to look at in October for Catchings.
But the way Catchings sees it, there's a little piece of unfinished business for mid-September that ought to yield a shiny ring for her finger.
"That's the drive that you have," said Catchings. "We might have a better team, but if you don't perform one night ... the potential is for a team to lose and then you go, 'We should have won that game.'"