Tamika Catchings, Fever headed back to postseason

In 24.6 MPG this season, Tamika Catchings is averaging 13.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists. Shane Bevel/NBAE/Getty Images

When Indiana left Tulsa on Sunday after its third loss in a row, you got the feeling that the Fever were seriously annoyed, but not in a self-destructive way. Indiana was intent on finishing some business that has become practically mandatory for a Fever team: making the postseason.

The mission was clear: A win against Connecticut on Tuesday would put Indiana in the playoffs for a WNBA-record 11th consecutive season. The Fever didn't want any suspense for this one -- and they didn't allow any.

After Indiana's 81-51 victory, the only player who has been part of every Fever playoff appearance (2002, and then 2005-present) put into perspective what 11 in a row means.

"It comes with everybody believing in the system," Tamika Catchings said, "and rising to the occasion. Getting through injuries, adjusting to a coaching change, and adding a few different players.

"It's really about getting the best out of everybody, no matter who's in the lineup. Just playing with the people who are available."

And it's also about the amazing consistency of Catchings. She has been the franchise's constant since she first took to the court in 2002, a year after being drafted with a knee injury that kept her out of what would have been her rookie season.

Catchings will say goodbye to her playing career after the 2016 season. But she's not going to slow down and just coast into retirement, like a boat cutting its motor entering a quiet cove.

Nope, Catch will be Catch right until the horn sounds on her final game. However, what she and coach Stephanie White have done this season is find ways to get the 36-year-old star more rest.

"We started that from the beginning of the season," Catchings said. "Especially early on, I was trying to get used to it, but sometimes sitting on the bench too much doesn't really work for my body, either. But we kind of figured out a way to make it work.

"A lot of it is off the court, too, just making sure I'm taking care of my body. Seeing the nutritionist to make sure I'm eating right. Sleeping more. Adding it all up, it makes a big difference."

After a few road games this year, Catchings has been able to take earlier flights home than the team does, letting her get more quality rest in her own bed. She hasn't changed the relentlessness with which she plays, but she's more aware of ways she can conserve energy.

Like most WNBA teams, the Fever have had injury issues to juggle, along with the ups and downs of playing in a compact league where every team has good players. It's hard to get on an extended roll. But the Fever did that, winning six in a row and nine of 10 going into last week, when Indiana had two games at home.

And then, just like that, the Fever's surge stalled. Momentum, a great friend to have around until it mysteriously disappears on you, left early at Bankers Life Fieldhouse when the Fever lost to the Sparks by two and the Dream by six.

"I still don't feel like we've touched our potential on how good we can be." Indiana's Tamika Catchings

Then at Tulsa, Indiana rallied from a 17-point deficit, only to lose by six again as the Shock punched their playoff ticket.

White, in her first season as head coach after taking over for the retired Lin Dunn, didn't overact to the losses, though.

"At this point in the year, everybody is playing with a sense of urgency. Everybody is desperate," White said. "It becomes less about effort, and more about execution-related aspects of the game. We've at times had slippage in both our offensive and defensive execution, and at this point in the year, those details are the difference between winning and losing games."

Tuesday back home in Indianapolis, the Fever didn't necessarily play a great game in Catchings' view, despite it being a blowout. But she's a harsh critic. The Fever did a lot right, shooting 47.7 percent from the field and making all 15 of their free throw attempts. Ten players scored for the Fever, led by Catchings with 13. Natalie Achonwa, a rookie of the year candidate, had 11.

Because of injuries and other absences, such as when Achonwa was helping Canada earn an Olympic berth, White has had to improvise with personnel. She has used nine different starting lineups this year. Right now, guard Briann January is day-to-day with soreness in her back and knee. Post player Erlana Larkins is hobbled with a leg injury, but is getting minutes.

The heartbeat of the Fever, of course, remains Catchings. She has won just one league MVP award, but she has been a perpetual candidate for than honor. Catchings has led Indiana to the playoffs under four different coaches: Nell Fortner, Brian Winters, Dunn and White, who by the way, is just two years older than Catchings.

Or, to put it in another perspective, when Catchings was in her first WNBA playoffs, the youngest of her current teammates, Achonwa, was only 9 years old.

The Fever go back on the road again now, with games at Minnesota, Washington and Atlanta before the regular-season finale at home against New York. The Liberty also won Tuesday -- holding off Atlanta in overtime -- and are the East's top team with a 21-8 record. Indiana and Chicago are both at 18-12; White now has the most victories by any Fever coach in her/his first year in charge of the team.

There's still a lot of basketball to be played, but the Fever know they'll be competing -- yet again -- in the postseason.

"I still don't feel like we've touched our potential on how good we can be," Catchings said. "One thing that we continue to focus on is to finish strong. You think about wanting to put your team in the best playoff position possible, and I think because of how the East is so tight, every night is like a playoff-intensity game."