The Fever That Won’t Break
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MINNEAPOLIS, MINN. -- All throughout the time leading up to Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, Indiana’s Tamika Catchings stated that her team was full of fight.
“I look at our team kind of like being in a boxing ring,” said Catchings, utilizing one of the sport’s favorite metaphors. “We’re the ones that are always getting hit and hit, but we never fall down.”
And, when facing the league’s biggest heavyweight in an arena where Minnesota lost only one other time this season, it was actually the Fever, who were dealt another blow by having to play without one of their star players in Katie Douglas, that finished with their arms raised on Sunday night.
Catchings, who tallied 20 points and six rebounds, paced a balanced and ferocious Fever team to a 76-70 victory over the Lynx in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals presented by Boost Mobile, bringing her one step closer to her first WNBA championship.
While Catchings is the figurehead of the Fever and it is her relentless style of play that carries over to the rest of her team, Indiana forward Erlana Larkins has, probably more than anyone, embodied the hard-nosed identity of the Fever this postseason.
Larkins, who couldn’t find a team to give her a chance in 2010 and 2011, registered 16 points and 15 rebounds on Sunday night. Those 15 rebounds were tied for the second most ever in WNBA Finals history. And, in the eight games that Larkins, who Fever coach Lin Dunn called a “warrior on the boards”, has started in the past month, the Fever are 7-1.
Even her opponents are starting to take notice.
“It was a play that I can remember where there were three or four Lynx players down there and [Larkins was] just battling by herself and she never gave up until the ball went into the basket or until she got the foul,” Minnesota’s Seimone Augustus said. “That’s the kind of play we have to expect from Erlana Larkins throughout this series.”
In fact, it’s that type of effort Minnesota needs to expect from all the Fever players the rest of the way.
Consider this sequence with just over five minutes to go in the game and the Fever up by three. Minnesota’s Maya Moore had the ball on the left block and she was rejected twice by Catchings, which led to an inbounds for the Lynx under their basket. Off the inbounds, Larkins read the play and blocked Rebekkah Brunson ,who actually fell to floor after the rejection – Dunn later called it a “thunder block” – and the Fever were able to subsequently get into transition and generate an easy layup for January.
It wasn’t, however, just those possessions – the Fever were tenacious all game. There was another critical, momentum-swinging moment when Lindsay Whalen had what appeared to be a sure bucket that would’ve brought the Lynx within six with 2:39 remaining.
How did she do it?
“Just not giving up on the play,” Zellous said. “I could have stayed at half court and let them get an easy two-point layup but I stayed with it and came from behind and got that block and that’s something we’re trying to do this whole series.”
By that, Zellous means making the hustle plays. This is a blue-collar team – they won four straight win-or-go-home games in the playoffs – and they know that their non-stop effort is their ticket to winning a title, especially since they are conceding homecourt advantage to a team that is superior on paper.
“Those 50/50 balls, we have to come out with them,” January said. “On the road, that’s huge. You know they have that energy so you have to even it out some way. They have the crowd, they have the homecourt advantage and to come out with those 50/50 balls, that’s huge. That swings momentum; it and gives you those sparks that you need.”
Production in the paint is also a reliable measuring stick in determining a team’s overall effort and that may be the biggest indicator of success for the Fever in Game 1. Despite being outrebound by eight and surrendering 15 offensive rebounds, the Lynx couldn’t muster but a jab under the basket. In fact, the Fever outscored the Lynx, 38-24, in the paint.
“We know [Minnesota has] great post players and they’re great defenders and we want to put pressure on them,” January said. “We know we have great scorers inside and can be aggressive. We did a great job getting on the boards, getting put-backs, getting seals, getting position down there and that’s really one of the strengths of our team and we need to take advantage of it.”
For the Fever, it’s really an attitude more than anything else. Catchings found it hard to describe it in words, letting out a grunt before she was able to articulate it more.
“When I turn around and have ten people behind me and I know they have my back, it makes everything like, OK, if I get hit, somebody behind me is going to step up to the plate. And I feel like we work really well like that,” Catchings said.
Being close to this team, one can sense that Indiana is extremely confident in its chances and just as comfortable in its identity.
This type of thing happens all the time in sports, where a team that is gelling at an opportune time and has been playing with their backs against the wall for a long stretch continues to perform at a high level until they win a championship.
“I feel like we definitely peaked at the right time and we’re still on our way up,” Catchings said. “We have yet to play our best game but we’ve come close in different quarters .”
And then, Catchings went back to that familiar refrain.
“You can keep hitting us, but we’re not going to fall down.”
Rhetoric aside, the message the Fever sent on Sunday night was clear. This series is going to be a fight, and it’s not going to be easy to knock this Fever team to the canvas.