Catchings provides Fever with defensive inspiration

By Tom Rietmann | July 12, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS -- Few, if any, players in the WNBA can change a game defensively like Indiana forward Tamika Catchings.

Never was that more evident than in the Fever's 68-57 victory Saturday night over the visiting Washington Mystics. Catchings' defensive performance broke open a fiercely contested and physical game in the fourth quarter. She did it with five steals, a blocked shot and a level of anticipation that forced the Mystics to worry about her on every possession in the final 10 minutes.

And Catchings did it with the same dogged intensity she has displayed for Fever fans since her career started here more than 10 years ago.

“We've gotten so used to seeing her style of play in Indianapolis, and how she impacts a game, it's one of those things you kind of come to expect when you watch her play,” said Kelly Krauskopf, the Fever's chief operating officer and general manager. “I really can't think of anybody else in the league who, when you need a change of possession or a stop or some type of play on the defensive end, she always delivers.”

Indiana assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg, a defensive specialist, is one of Catchings' biggest fans.

“She always impacts the game down the stretch with big-time defensive plays -- a rebound, a blocked shot, a steal,” he said. “There's nobody you'd want besides her at the end of the game to be out there defensively.”

Indiana fans can expect to see more of the same Wednesday when Connecticut visits Conseco Fieldhouse for a matinee game. The Fever (9-3) enters the matchup with a six-game winning streak and the best record in the WNBA.

Catchings has won the league's Defensive Player of the Year award a record four times. She has led the league in steals six times, also a record.

With her total of six steals against Washington, Catchings, who is 31 years old, is the WNBA career leader with 738. That's two more than the Los Angeles Sparks' Ticha Penicheiro, who is 36.

Catchings is showing no signs of slowing down. Indeed, Krauskopf says Catchings' defensive ability is on an uptick because of the “veteran savvy” she has accrued. It helps, too, that she plays for a defensive-minded team led by a head coach, Lin Dunn, who preaches defense ahead of all else.

Said Krauskopf: “We've heard from players who have joined our team -- (off-season acquisition) Tangela Smith being one of them -- who got in here and said, 'We hated playing Indiana because of your defense.' Obviously, Catch is the catalyst, the leader, in terms of that identity.”

Catchings says her defensive skills began to flourish when she got to the University of Tennessee. The standout forward learned her lessons well with Coach Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols.

“One thing I know is, my shots might not fall … but the biggest difference I can make every single day is my defensive intensity,” Catchings said.

Catchings shows a knack for blocking a team's passing lanes. In her effort to make plays, she sometimes takes risks, but they generally pan out. Catchings' teammates rely on her, and her play elevates theirs at the defensive end.

“From the first time Catch picked up a basketball, defense and tremendous effort have been the foundation for her and how she plays the game,” Dunn said. “They really go together. It doesn't surprise us at all when she has a break-out five or six minutes, because she values it so much.”

Disruption is the key to Indiana's defense. It starts with the 6-foot-1 Catchings with her keen anticipation and quick hands.

“She can guard pretty much anybody on the court,” Kloppenburg said. “She can guard anybody from 5-2 to 6-5 with her ability to defend.  She's just so versatile and such a fierce rebounder. She is the backbone of a pressure defensive system, I think, and why we've been successful with it.”

Catchings, with 30 steals, is second in that category to Chicago's Epiphanny Prince (39) for the 2011 season. Catchings is also among the WNBA leaders in rebounding (7.9 per game) and blocks (nine).

Her excellence extends to the offensive side, too, as she ranks among the leaders in scoring (13.3 per game), assists (4.0 per game) and free throw percentage (92.1).

Asked how she would like to be remembered whenever her basketball career ends, Catchings didn't hesitate.

“I think I'll be most proud of how hard I play,” she said. “When I get done, and people look back at my career, they're going to say it was always like she had fun and played with a lot of passion.

“I play with a smile,” she said. “I love what I do. What I play with, it's not something I learned. It's something I have inside.”