Tangela Smith steps up for Fever

Tangela Smith talks about her big night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.

INDIANAPOLIS -- There's something endearing about a player who, after being the star in a very important game for her team, jokes that it was about time.

"I just took advantage of how they were playing us," said Indiana Fever forward Tangela Smith, who led the way with 25 points in the Fever's 82-74 Game 1 victory in the Eastern Conference finals Thursday against the Atlanta Dream. "They were so focused on Catch, Tammy and Dougie that they left me wide open. Maybe because I haven't been hitting all year."

Smith laughed as she said that, but she is being brutally honest. However, probably a little too brutal. Yes, her field goal percentage (37.1) and scoring average (7.2) this season are both the lowest of her 14-year WNBA career.

But that has something to do with the role she plays on this Fever team. At 34, Smith is the "complete pro" as Dougie -- Katie Douglas -- puts it.

"I just think she's brought not only a level of experience, but also a level of poise and calmness about her," Douglas said. "Her personality is key for our team; we have a lot of high-emotion players and Tan doesn't get too high or low. She's going to balance us out. You're not going to rattle her, and she can be a game-changer."

Indeed, Smith showed that she still has the ability to burn teams. The scoring output was a career playoff high for her, and her five 3-pointers were the most any Fever player has ever had in the postseason.

Smith also had nine rebounds on a night when Indiana achieved one of it primary goals -- win the board battle -- against a team that had been its nemesis this season. The Fever weren't able to limit turnovers as much as they wanted to -- and early on, especially, that led to easy Dream baskets. But overall, Indiana did the things it hadn't done in losing all four previous meetings in 2011 with Atlanta. Meanwhile, Atlanta was hurt because Dream star Angel McCoughtry was hampered all night by foul trouble and never found a rhythm, finishing with just 11 points in 17-plus minutes.

Tamika Catchings (12 points, 13 rebounds) and Tammy Sutton-Brown (10 points, eight rebounds) were on the 2009 Fever team, along with Douglas, that lost in the WNBA finals 3-2 to Phoenix. Back then, Smith was with the Mercury, a team with whom she won the WNBA title that year and in 2007.

An Iowa graduate and a native of Chicago, Smith has been in the league since 1998, when she began as a rookie with Sacramento. She spent seven years with the Monarchs but was traded before Sacramento's best season, 2005, when the franchise won the WNBA title. Smith then went to purgatory, er, Charlotte for two seasons.

Minnesota took Smith in the dispersal draft of the Sting after the 2006 season, and then she was traded on draft day in 2007 for top pick Lindsey Harding.

Thursday at Conseco Fieldhouse for Game 1 of this series, Harding was Atlanta's top performer with 17 points, seven assists and six rebounds. After sweeping Connecticut in the first round, the Dream now go home to Atlanta for a game they must win to stay alive if they want to advance to the finals for a second year in a row.

"Honestly, we can't let someone have a career night again," Harding said in regard to Smith. "We did not even adjust to that, and that's something that can't happen. We were focusing on other players. We knew we needed to [play help defense] on Katie Douglas and Tamika Catchings, but sometimes you can help too much. In this game, I think we had a problem with over-helping, and they were rotating the ball and getting open shots."

Earlier in the day, Catchings had been presented the WNBA's MVP award in a ceremony, and the Fever crowd chanted "MVP!" when she showed off the trophy just before the game. The thing that Catchings most wants, though, is another trophy: the one for a league championship.

"It means a lot for me, too," Smith said. "Because I do have two championships, but my teammates don't, and they're hungry for that. It's one of the big reasons I came to this team -- I really want them to get one."

But the other big reason Smith left Phoenix for Indiana is that it provides a chance to play close to her hometown of Chicago, about 2½ hours away.

"It's been awesome, because my family has been able to come to the games," said Smith, whose parents and grandmother were both present Thursday. "And on off days, I go home a lot. It makes me feel a lot more comfortable. I love it."

Catchings and Smith, incidentally, once played on the same AAU team in the Chicago area. Smith always had in the back of her mind that she hoped she and Catchings might someday be on the same side again.

They are now, and it's worked well for Indy.

"She's believed in me all year, and encouraged me," Smith said of Catchings. "She'd say, 'Keep shooting, you're going to knock them down.' And she kept feeding me the ball."

On Thursday night, that was a very good strategy.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.