An MVP kind of year

By Tom Rietmann
                       
As Tamika Catchings prepared to shoot a free throw in last Friday's victory over Phoenix, she could hear the “MVP” chants coming from the crowd in Conseco Fieldhouse.
“Kinda cool,” the Indiana Fever star said this week. “It was kind of a surreal moment.”

For years, Indiana's fans have had a true appreciation for Catchings, in her ninth active season with the Fever. They know that nobody in the WNBA plays with more passion, more unrelenting energy. They know that fierce defensive pressure and rebounding effort are part of her DNA.

However, in 2010, it's what those fans have witnessed from Catchings at the offensive end that has them truly excited. She is a picture of efficiency. Her shooting accuracy is easily the best of her career. She is perhaps better than ever in important late-game situations.

“I think it is my best year,” Catchings conceded.

Indeed, it is an MVP kind of year.

As the Fever (21-10) finishes the regular season this week, Catchings can add to her dramatically improved marksmanship. She is averaging 18.1 points on .492 accuracy this season after starting the year as a .403 career shooter. She is hitting .433 from the 3-point arc after starting the season as a .351 shooter.

Catchings started the year with a 16.5 career scoring average. Mostly, quickness and driving ability made her a strong scorer. But now she has become a consistent threat from anywhere on the floor because of a deft shooting touch.

Catchings offers her thanks to a number of coaches.

A major factor in the improvement, she said, has been her work with Marvin Harvey, a shooting coach based in Tampa, Fla. For about four years, Catchings and the man known as the “Shot Doctor” made tweaks on footwork, ball positioning and form. The changes and development have been steady and gradual but nowhere near as stunning as this season.

“This year, it's like the light clicked on,” Catchings said. “The confidence level is definitely at an all-time high.”

Fever assistant coach Carlos Knox, a former standout player at IUPUI, aids Catchings with her shooting during the WNBA season. He counsels her to make practices as much like game conditions as possible. As he's feeding her the basketball through many of  those practice sessions, Knox also keeps a close eye on Catchings' technique.

Knox said a turning point for Catchings' offense appeared to come shortly after she returned to the Fever in May after her season playing in Turkey.

“She just looked like she was really determined and ready to work on that part of her game,” Knox said. “And she started consistently getting better and better.

“She plays off a lot of emotion and passion and energy,” Knox added. “So it's kind of hard to channel that toward one particular craft when you do so many things well. I think when she focuses on one thing, we all know that she can become a great asset at whatever she's doing. It just so happens now that she's really focusing on her shooting.”

Indiana coach Lin Dunn preached to Catchings to slow down at the offensive end. Dunn wanted the Fever star to take time to watch plays develop and preserve some energy. At numerous times this season, Dunn has positioned a more rested Catchings to assume play-making duties in the offense when the game is on the line.

“Through the years,” Dunn said, “she has really worked at improving her skills to go with all of that effort.”

Catchings, 31, said she has noticed a stark contrast.

“I'm able to see the plays happen before they actually happen,” she said. “And it's being able to create not only for myself but for my teammates, open looks and open opportunities.
“On defense, you can go 100 miles per hour,” Catchings noted. “But on offense, you can't go 100 miles per hour because you're going to wear yourself out. That's probably the biggest change to my game, just slowing down a lot.”

Dunn opened the season with hopes of reducing playing time for not only Catchings but also Katie Douglas, the team's second-leading scorer. With a strong performance from Indiana's corps of reserves, the plan has held up. Catchings, averaging a career-low 31.1 minutes per game, has been especially strong since the All-Star break and has scored 24 or more points in five of the last seven games.

“I think it's huge,” Catchings said about the reserves' play. “I have confidence in whoever comes in. We continue to rely on that. Everybody is going to play. Everybody is going to be effective.”
Catchings, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in the WNBA, remains an all-out defender and rebounding presence. She ranks first in the league in steals with 2.42 a game and ninth in rebounding at 7.0.

The Fever, in first place in the Eastern Conference, finishes the regular season with games at New York (Tuesday), at San Antonio (Friday) and against Minnesota (Sunday). Indiana is playing for home-court advantage in the playoffs, which can only help in the team's bid to repeat as conference champion and return to the league finals.

“The one thing I truly, truly, truly want is that WNBA championship,” Catchings said. “At the end of the day, having the MVP is great and all. But when you look at it 10 or 15 years from now, nobody's going to remember who won the MVP. But people will remember who won the WNBA championship.”

Indiana fans are hoping for both the title and the MVP.