Friendship helps Fever stay in sync
Catchings, Douglas look to guide Indiana through tough Eastern Conference playoff race
After they'd played together with the Indiana Fever for two seasons, Tamika Catchings probably thought she knew Katie Douglas fairly well. But in January, Catchings discovered something that caught her by surprise.
"I told her, 'Gosh, I didn't realize how much shorter you were than me,'" Catchings said, laughing.
Catchings is listed at 6-foot-1, Douglas at 6-0. But Catchings is sure there must be more than an inch difference after finding herself wearing "high waters" when she had to borrow some of Douglas' pants. (Catchings' luggage was lost for a few days when she went to join Douglas playing in Turkey at the start of 2010, so Douglas shared her wardrobe.)
While they may not be the same height, both are accustomed to standing quite tall.
Douglas turned 31 in May; Catchings' 31st birthday is Wednesday. Both 2001 graduates, Catchings and Douglas each won one NCAA title game and lost one during their respective careers at Tennessee and Purdue.
After coming agonizing close to winning what would have been their first WNBA title last year, they brooded a bit. Both hypercompetitive, they are also hyperaware that championship chances are precious.
Douglas finished the 2009 WNBA season uncertain where she would head overseas after her Russian team disbanded, and she ended up in Turkey. Catchings originally had intended to spend her 2010 winter season in Poland, but when the opportunity arose to play along with Douglas in Istanbul, Catchings jumped at it.
"It definitely helped our friendship, on and off the court," Catchings said. "She lived two buildings over from me, and we hung out a lot together. I just feel like we're totally on the same page in how we deal with each other."
It wasn't as if Catchings and Douglas were ever that far apart after Douglas came to Indiana in a trade from Connecticut. But even after the excellent 2009 season -- one that, frankly, was vital to keeping the franchise in Indianapolis -- Catchings thought there was still room for the Fever's top duo to grow.
They feel they've done that, as evidenced by Indiana's record (13-7) and position in the Eastern Conference (tied for first).
That's not to say Catchings (averaging 16.6 points per game) and Douglas (13.8) can't find plenty of flaws in the Fever's performance thus far this season. Certainly, they can -- especially after a 77-68 loss at home to Connecticut on July 14. Indiana was outrebounded 41-34 and let a two-point third-quarter lead slip away thanks to an uncharacteristic defensive breakdown in which it allowed 25 points in the fourth.
"I think that we were doing some schemes and rotating and weren't getting out quick enough on shooters," Douglas said in analyzing how the game got away from Indiana in the final period. "They were getting a lot of second-chance points and extra possessions. Normally, when we play the defense we're capable of, those things don't happen.
"We've been talking about rebounding for a few weeks now. We understand where we're at. We definitely need to get better at it. We need to help each other. We do several different things that other teams don't do, and we have a lot of mismatches that can make it tough sometimes on the boards. But we have to fight through it."
Catchings, whose postgame analysis was in sync with Douglas', said she still thinks back on what Tennessee coach Pat Summitt always said about rebounding.
"It comes down to heart, and that is one thing that Pat always preached," Catchings said. "She would say, 'If you want to win, and achieve the things you say you want to achieve, that's where your heart comes in.'
"We continue to talk about it, but if we want to win a championship, that's what it's going to take."
In the Eastern Conference this season, though, it's going to take that kind of effort just to make it into the postseason. While Atlanta, Washington, Connecticut and Indiana are now in the playoff positions, it's not as if New York (1.5 games back of the current No. 4 seed Sun) and Chicago (2.5) couldn't rise up and take a spot.
"In my 10 years in the Eastern Conference, this seems like the most tricky," Douglas said. "I've never seen it quite so tangled among the top four. There's not the one team that's got the dominant record the way Seattle has now in the West. The East is more grinding it out, and we've talked about how every game is going to be like a playoff game."
The Fever has been pleased with the performance of their reserve players, and Catchings acknowledges that it's important for veterans to get some rest down the stretch of the season. However, she doesn't want too much downtime to come during games. Catchings prefers to avoid any long stretches on the bench; she'd rather stay warmed up.
"When I was 20, I could come off the bench after sitting down and be able to jump right back into it," she said. "But I'm not 20 anymore. When you go all the way cold now, it's hard to just say, 'OK, bam, I need it.' We have to keep the balance."
That also goes for how the Fever players deal with the emotional ups and downs that likely are inevitable for this final month of the regular season. Douglas thinks the time she and Catchings spent together in Turkey will help in that regard, too.
"Having her and I on the floor together, there is -- I would hope -- a calming presence," Douglas said. "I tend to be more vocal, and I think we complement each other extremely well.
"Knowing the level of experience that we both bring, I feel like going forward we're able to come together even after a loss and refocus quickly. We'll gather everybody together and talk about things we can fix. When we were overseas, we hung out together pretty much every day and got to know each other on a little different level. And a stronger bond was formed. It was great for us, and it helps."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.