Fever gears up for stretch run

By Tom Rietmann

INDIANAPOLIS -- Playoffs? Indiana Fever players and coaches have no desire this week to discuss the WNBA playoffs. Ask them about the 2011 postseason and you get responses about focusing on the here and now.

“We're not even looking at the playoffs,” Coach Lin Dunn said after Indiana's spirited practice on Tuesday. “The playoffs are so irrelevant right now. What's relevant is the next opponent, and what's relevant is us getting better. It's way too early to think about the playoffs.”

As former Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora once famously scolded: “Playoffs? Don't talk about playoffs!” Mora was fuming after a Colts loss that left the team 4-6.  The Fever's reasoning for dismissing playoffs chatter is a little different.

Indiana, 19-8 and in first place in the Eastern Conference, is on the verge of clinching a seventh consecutive postseason berth. Getting to the playoffs -- indeed, winning a WNBA championship -- has been the Fever's stated goal since the club opened training camp in May.

However, at this point, peering ahead can be treacherous. The Indiana team is taking nothing for granted. Besides making a playoff spot official, still at stake in the regular season are important factors such as home-court advantage and momentum for the postseason.

“One of the things we've kind of overlooked in the past is the steps you have to take to get there,” Fever forward Tamika Catchings. “This year, I don't want to do that. Let's focus on now. We have seven more games. We have Atlanta twice (Saturday night at Conseco Fieldhouse and Tuesday on the road). So let's focus on Atlanta. After that, we'll focus on the next step. Let's take it step by step instead of looking ahead of ourselves.”

Last year, it seemed the Fever forgot about those steps. The team lost its final three regular-season games and dropped from first to third in the conference. Indiana, without the home-court edge, then lost its first-round playoff series to New York.

If the problem in 2010 was complacency, Catchings and her teammates don't want a repeat in 2011.

“The cool thing about this team is that we have so much room to get better,” said Catchings, who is a candidate for the league's Most Valuable Player award. “The opportunity we have to get better every single day in practice, that should be every individual's goal. Every day I'm out there, I should get better somehow, some way. If I get better, I help my team get better. If the team gets better, it helps us achieve our overall goal.”

The importance of home-court advantage in the playoffs is not lost on the Fever. The Indiana team has never won a postseason series without it.

In the conference playoffs, which are best of three, the higher-seeded team gets the opener and the third game, if necessary, at home. In the best-of-five league finals, the better seed starts with two at home in the 2-2-1 format.

Indiana is 12-2 at Conseco Fieldhouse in the 2011 regular season. With three games left at The Fieldhouse, the team could break its franchise record for home victories (14-3). Indiana's average margin of victory in 2011 home games is 14.3 points.

In past playoff games, Indiana has been 10-4 at home and 4-13 on the road.

“The fans here are like our sixth man,” Fever center Tammy Sutton-Brown said. “They are incredible. A lot of us feed off the energy that the fans give us. It's such a great atmosphere.”

Sutton-Brown detects a certain resolve among her teammates. The 33-year-old athlete said “the focus is definitely turned up a notch” for the final seven regular-season games. As she spoke with a reporter this week, Sutton-Brown's only discussion of the postseason came in the form of the team's ultimate goal.

“If you ask any player, that's the reason why you play. It's for that ring, that championship,” she said. “If you ask any other player on this team, whether it's Katie (Douglas) or Catch or anybody, that's what we are searching for, that's what we want. It's 11 years for me (in the WNBA). To retire after having one, it just sounds so much better than to go through and never have one.”

Forward Tangela Smith is the only Fever player with a championship ring. In fact, she won a pair -- in 2007 and 2009 with Phoenix. Smith's mother keeps the rings at her Chicago home.

Smith, like Sutton-Brown, has noticed the ratcheted-up focus on the Indiana team. Finishing the regular season with a strong push, Smith noted, is extremely important.

“Teams are really fighting to get in and get a spot,” the veteran said. “We want to continue to keep that No. 1 spot and hopefully try to get home-court advantage throughout (the postseason). You always want your fans behind you, pumping you up.”

The Fever's final seven regular-season games are against Eastern Conference teams. Indiana is 11-4 against the East.

For Indiana, however, the final six games will be played over a 13-day stretch, including four on the road. That's why Dunn and the Fever are using this week's five-day layoff to put in some intense work. Dunn said Tuesday's practice was devoted to “Fever basketball,” with an emphasis on defense, and the rest of the week will involve specifics about the Atlanta team.

Starting with next week's difficult run, Dunn said, the team won't have time for “those good practices where you can really drill.” But nothing will change with the team's goal.

“Every game is important, every quarter,” Dunn said. “You just want to keep getting better.”