Fever plan: Stay sharp for playoffs

By Tom Rietmann

INDIANAPOLIS -- When the Indiana Fever lost starting point guard Briann January to a knee injury after 10 games, the team's other players united like a close-knit family. They persevered. They overcame lulls in the season. And they clinched the No. 1 seed in the WNBA Eastern Conference.

 In that achievement, Indiana's players allowed themselves a little pride this week.

“Everybody has given a lot this season,” star forward Tamika Catchings said after the Fever defeated Washington 87-69 and wrapped up the top seed with a 21-11 record. “Every single game, somebody has stepped up. It is kind of satisfying when you look at where we are. But now, we can't relax.”

As the Indiana players peer down the road, they know their journey has miles remaining. With regular-season games left at New York on Friday and at home against Atlanta on Sunday, the Fever want to go into the playoffs in winning fashion.

Players like to call them “statement games.” If the playoffs started today, New York would be Indiana's first opponent. A Fever win on Friday could produce thoughts of vulnerability for a Liberty team that eliminated Indiana from the 2010 postseason. It's also possible Atlanta could be the Fever's opening opponent. Indiana, 0-3 against Atlanta in their season series, wouldn't mind a confidence boost heading into the playoffs.

“Just because we've clinched, that doesn't mean we're through,” Fever Coach Lin Dunn said. “We'll play to win (in the last two games).”

Plus, as Fever guard Katie Douglas said: “It's all about staying ready and staying sharp. That's a hard thing to juggle, but we definitely need to stay sharp and stay in a rhythm.”

The Fever won the Eastern Conference's top seed for only the second time in franchise history. It previously happened in 2009, when Indiana made it to the WNBA Finals. A return trip to the Finals, including a league championship this time, has been the team's stated goal since the first day of training camp.

But amid the happiness of clinching the top spot on Wednesday night, the Fever also faced  an element of uncertainty. Erin Phillips, who replaced the injured January as the starting point guard and has averaged 14.2 points over her last four games, suffered a sprained ankle late in the game. She didn't travel with the Fever to New York, staying in Indianapolis for treatment.

The team hopes to have Phillips back for the playoffs. However, if Phillips isn't ready,  Shannon Bobbitt, who had four steals in her first eight minutes against Washington, could move in. Douglas, normally a shooting guard, can play some point guard. Catchings, a leading candidate for league MVP honors, could run the offense as a “point forward.”

“It'll be point guard by committee,” Dunn said. “Let's just hope for the best because Erin has been playing so well.”

Indiana knows, too, that rebounding and inside scoring will be important when the intensity levels rise in the playoffs. The Fever had a strong inside presence against Washington, known for its tough and physical style. Center Tammy Sutton-Brown scored a season-high 15 points with seven rebounds and five blocked shots. Backup Jessica Davenport had five points and four rebounds.

 “It doesn't matter whether it's me or Dav playing, I'm at the point where it's my 11th season and I just want that (WNBA championship) ring,” Sutton-Brown said. “I'm willing to do whatever it takes.”

The Fever will have home-court advantage through the two rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Each series is best of three, with the higher seed getting the first game and the third game, if necessary, at home. In the league finals, it's best of five games with the higher seed starting with two at home and then returning for the fifth game, if necessary. If Minnesota, the Western Conference's top seed, gets upset before the WNBA Finals and Indiana advances that far, the Fever could have home-court advantage against its Western foe.

Indiana is 13-3 at Conseco Fieldhouse this season. The Fever team is 10-4 in playoff games at the fieldhouse, compared to 4-13 on the road. Indiana has never won a playoff series without home-court advantage.

“(Having the home-court edge) is a big deal,” Sutton-Brown said, “especially here in Indy because we feed off the fans' energy so much. They really are our 6th man, so much energy.”