2012 Defined by a Championship … and Twitter
It is January and a time to reflect for a last time on the Indiana Fever’s championship season of 2012. How did it happen? What will be remembered about it? Why was it so remarkable? Where to go from here?
First, let’s get this straight — the Fever has been poised to win a title since about 2008 and perhaps even sooner. Countless playoff appearances and trips to the Eastern Conference Finals have only resulted in two trips to the WNBA Finals, but that’s not to say Indiana wasn’t championship-worthy until just 2012. In 2009, of course, the Fever missed a golden opportunity at its first title when it lost in Game 4 at home to Phoenix, then fell on the road in a decisive Game 5. That Finals series has widely been regarded as the best in league history. Even after a Fever title in 2012, the 2009 series still has my vote as the best Finals matchup ever.
In 2010 and in 2011, Indiana could also have won the championship, though got bumped by a hot Atlanta franchise that twice advanced to the Finals before getting swept. Finally, last October, the Fever overcame the Atlanta obstacle in order to return to the Finals. But this time, probably unlike any Finals matchup in the past 10 years, the defending champion Minnesota Lynx loomed as such an overwhelming favorite to repeat as champions that NOBODY predicted the Fever to win. It was a foregone conclusion that the Mighty Lynx — a team made up of top draft picks, All-Stars and Olympians — would roll anybody in its path on the way to a second title.
So how did it happen? How did the improbable Fever return to the Finals in the first place, then not just beat the Lynx but pummel them into submission after two unimaginable nights at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Oct. 19 and 21?
You have to start with the incomparable Tamika Catchings, but one of the most key components of this reflection story is that Tamika was a mere contributor in a sea of postseason Fever contributors. Her role as WNBA Finals MVP is not to be diminished, but if she was Fever Star #1, there was a long line of Fever stars identified as #1A, #1B, #1C, #1D, #1E and so on. Indiana’s title was a true TEAM title.
Indiana waltzed into the postseason knowing it needed to get its game back on track. In the season’s second half, the Fever was perhaps the league’s strongest team, evidenced by back-to-back nailbiters with the defending champs, themselves. Indiana’s experience behind Catchings and Katie Douglas was paramount. Nobody in the WNBA was more seasoned than the Fever duo, and with its younger stars, Indiana was one of few clubs that could challenge the star-studded Lynx. As fate would have it, though, the final regular season meeting at Target Center would provide a backdrop for the weeks to follow. In that game, starters Briann January and Shavonte Zellous both were sent from the arena with concussions. Both would miss the final week of the regular season. And Indiana would open the playoffs with injury question marks surrounding both players.
Round 1 was a conference semifinal matchup against the Dream — the long and athletic Atlanta Dream led by Angel McCoughtry, Lindsey Harding, Erika de Souza and Sancho Lyttle. Indiana lost Game 1 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and hopes were flickering already when the Fever was forced to an early elimination game at Philips Arena.
Game 2 at Atlanta, however, presented one of the most remarkable scenarios that I have ever seen in my college and pro sports information career. With Douglas as the club’s leading playoff scorer, she joined Catchings for a 2-of-14 first-half shooting slump. Yet Indiana shot 53.3 percent from the floor and led by 2, 47-45. After three quarters, their slump was 2-of-17, yet the Fever still was shooting over 52 percent as a team and Indiana had extended its lead to 78-65! What was happening was absolutely a precursor to the Fever Championship.
Removing Catchings & Douglas stat lines from the box score, the Fever shot 87.5 percent (14-of-16) in the first half and 75 percent (24-of-32) through three quarters. In the morning headlines the next day, Catchings’ name was again in bold print. She awoke from her slumber to register an 18-point fourth period which was just shy of the WNBA playoffs record. Good for Tamika. But it masked the real story.
In the absence of Catchings & Douglas, January shot 9-of-13 with a 3-pointer for 22 points and a game-high five assists through the first three quarters. Inserted into the lineup for the first time in the playoffs, Erlana Larkins responded with 4-of-5 shooting, 14 points and six rebounds through three periods. Erin Phillips and Shavonte Zellous both shot 4-of-5 while scoring with 11 and 10 points in that time, and Tammy Sutton-Brown came off the bench to spark the club with 11. That was all before the fourth quarter even began. With Catchings on fire in the fourth, Indiana rolled to a 103-88 win. It avoided elimination and would advance to the conference finals two nights later … but largely because of Catchings’ monster fourth quarter, the Fever secret remained under wraps.
Against Connecticut, of course, the Sun had home-court advantage. The Sun won Game 1 and Indiana escaped Game 2 with the Catchings-to-January-to-Zellous last second shot that still echoes through the memories of Fever fans in attendance. Game 3 was won in very much the same fashion as Game 2 in Atlanta had been won — but this time, the win was credited to the club’s resilience in the face of adversity as Douglas fell victim to an ankle injury just minutes into the contest. Refusing to be denied its rightful place back in the Finals, Indiana rallied for an improbable 87-71 road win. Yes, Catchings scored 22 with 13 rebounds. But she was surrounded by double-digit scorers whose names are rarely found in the headlines — Phillips had 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting with three 3-pointers; second-year star Jeanette Pohlen produced 14 points on 5-of-5 shooting including four 3-pointers; January had 12, Zellous 11.
But as Indiana had reached the Finals and embarked for a cross-country road trip to Minneapolis, the “story” became the loss of Douglas.
Even as Indiana captured Game 1 from the mighty Lynx, the new story was, “how long can the Fever keep pulling rabbits out of the hat?” Or, “how long before the Lynx rise to put down the Fever?” Stats from Game 1 … Catchings got her 20 points, but Larkins contributed 16 points and 15 rebounds, Phillips added 13, January had 11.
Game 2 would go in Minnesota’s favor as the series shifted to Indiana … but from the time the WNBA Finals reached Indianapolis, Indiana’s cast of previously unheralded heroes took center stage and walked away with the title.
Games 3 and 4 of the 2012 WNBA Finals were possibly the two most unexpected finishes in WNBA Finals history. And the STORY from Bankers Life Fieldhouse was written almost exclusively by Briann January, Shavonte Zellous, Erlana Larkins and Erin Phillips. In those two games, Zellous amassed 45 points, Catchings 42, Phillips 33, January 17 and Larkins had 15 points with 28 rebounds. The Fever busted their way to a 37-point lead in Game 3 of the Finals, 70-33 with still two minutes to play in the third period. NEVER had any team owned so large a lead in the WNBA Finals — and yet it was the Fever’s cast of previous no-names that was running away with things.
In all four games of the Finals, Indiana claimed at double-digit lead at some point. Game 4 saw the Fever win its title with an 87-78 final score. Just like its two regular-season meetings, Indiana was a toe-to-toe challenger with the club everyone thought was a shoe-in as repeat champion.
But Indiana was too deep for the Lynx; too dynamic; too versatile. Its backcourt of January, Phillips and Zellous was relentless on the offensive end of the floor and, defensively, just too gritty for the All-Star Lynx. Even after sharpshooter Pohlen was lost to another Fever injury in Game 2, the Fever still hit one-third of its 3-point attempts, showing why it had led the league in 3-point shooting throughout the regular season. And with Larkins unleashed on the boards, no longer was the Fever a second-rate rebounding club.
Finally, despite the usual stat-stuffing performances by Catchings, the story belonged to January, Zellous, Larkins and Phillips. With Finals contributions from Karima Christmas and Jessica Davenport, the Fever had achieved the truest of team championships — advancing and winning despite injury and with performance from every player on its roster.
So, how will the 2012 championship be remembered and where will the Fever go in 2013? And what does Twitter have to do with this first blog of the new year? Tune in later this week for my next installment!