Coyle & Laimbeer Discuss 2007 WNBA Playoff Race

The Eastern Conference coaches chatted with members of the media on Tuesday afternoon in anticipation of the 2007 WNBA post-season kick-off. The following are remarks from Liberty head coach Pat Coyle and Shock head coach Bill Laimbeer.

Pat Coyle – New York Liberty:
We are thrilled to be in the 2007 WNBA Playoffs.  We have a formidable task ahead of us, and we are looking forward to Friday night.

You beat Detroit twice in the regular season, how much stock do you put into that going into the Playoffs?

We don’t put much stock into it, it’s the regular season, and the Playoffs are a whole different animal. The intensity, everything is at such a higher level during the Playoffs, you can’t make much of what was done in the regular season.

Do you believe you have a shot of doing some damage now that you guys (New York Liberty) have clinched the final playoff spot?

I think with such a young team, I am not really sure what they expect. Our expectations are to play hard, and play as best we can, whatever happens will happen.

Can you talk about Ashley Battle and what spark she brings to your team?

I think AB (Ashley Battle) has done a great job coming off the bench and giving us tremendous amounts of energy. The one thing about A.B. is that she has been around a lot of pressure situations, I expect her to come in and to do the job she’s been doing and provide that energy.

Do you think she (Ashley Battle) has learned a lot of that coming from a championship team in the Connecticut Huskies?

I can’t speak for the people in Connecticut, but AB really gives us that extra boost. The pressure situations that she dealt with in Connecticut helps her give a lending hand to the younger players in the preparation part of their first Playoff experience.

Following the final win of the season and clinching the final Playoff spot, what was the feeling after never given a chance to win games once you traded away Becky Hammon?

Two years ago we decided we were going to change the selections of this team for the health of the organization we really felt like we had to make these changes. We are moving in the right direction, as much heat as we took, we felt like we made the right moves to further this organization in where we wanted to go. We have taken the right steps, we are a very young team, but we are definitely in the right direction.

What has enabled to give you some success against Detroit, especially in areas which other teams have struggled?

Detroit is a terrific team, they can go 2-3 deep, they are the defending champs for a reason and they are well coached.  You look at some match-ups in the league, and for whatever reason we seem to match up well against them.

How do you plan to position certain players offensively and defensively?

We are looking at the games we played them, we won’t make a lot of adjustments, and we will just tweak certain things. We are going to go out and do what we need to do to win.

How much did the roller coaster of the regular season affect you and how much does that focus the youth of your team?

We got off to a quick start, and then we had a seven game losing streak, but when you look at it you’re never as good as you think you are and you’re never as bad as you think you are. We have proven that we are young, and we have been up and down night to night; the one thing that I realized is that we have really gotten blown out this year. We’re very completive this year, a bunch of those close games we could have won. Down the stretch when we needed to win games I think we learned from our previous mistakes.

Are you guys going to prepare a lot for Cheryl Ford?

We are assuming that Cheryl (Ford) and Swin Cash will be playing, and will play at full strength. We will approach the game either way, Detroit is so talented and deep, both are great players, but their bench is one of the best in the league.

How has the development been of your rookies, and how much will you rely on them coming into the Playoffs?

They have been in big games and both of them have gotten quality minutes. The two of them have come along for us and have really done a great job for the team. I think we have a lot of depth in our front court, and they all have been mix-matched.

One of the strengths for your team was that you don’t have one go-to player, but what do you think of Janel McCarville rising to the occasion now as the go-to star?

I think that has been our strength all along, we don’t have that true superstar; we have got it done with blue collar players. New York is all about everyone contributing night in and night out.

Sometimes Janel McCarville gets down on herself when things don’t always go her way, do you have a plan for getting her to re-focus?

Janel is a really emotional player; she won’t back down from anyone. I think she’s finding her way again. I have no intentions of doing anything with trying to calm down the emotions that Janel brings.

Bill Laimbeer -Detroit Shock
Well, obviously we’re the defending champions and we’ve gone into the playoffs losing four straight, but that was not necessarily by design, but we didn’t try to really play hard to win the games anyways.  We played hard but I did not allow the horses enough to win those games, which actually got them kind of mad at me, which is good – they are a little feisty right now.  We had a good, sound, spirited practice today and we are optimistic about our chances in these playoffs.  We have pretty much the same team that we had last year, with the exception of Ruth Riley.  Our core remains intact and they know what it takes to get it done.

How much did Cheryl Ford practice today and what was she able to do?

Cheryl did all pre-practice drills, which is lay-up line, running figure eight, running fast break drills, running some secondary offense dummies up and down the court.  When it came to five-on-five, she stepped aside.  At the end of practice when we were working on new plays, she stepped back in.  So there was no five-on-five contact; it was a lot of running up-and-down dummies.  I thought she did better than I would have expected.  The mobility seems to be there running up-and-down the floor.  Wind-wise, it remains to be seen, but she has been working hard with what she can do in the pool and on the Stairmaster.  Overall, I thought it looked good for her today, but she has a long way to go.

Do you expect her to be playing in the first round at all?

I think it’s too early to tell right now. I think we will see how she is tomorrow after running hard today.  We will see what she is capable of doing tomorrow, whether she can expand herself into a little bit more of a five-on-five and then take it from there.

You talked about Cheryl.  Even if she is ready to go, I would assume you are looking at using her in a limited basis and you guys have played more than half of a season without her.  Is it as big as we tend to make it out to be?

I do not really have quite the answer to that  I think that obviously with her, we are a better basketball team.  Even if it were a 15-20 minute stretch, I need that extra body out there right now, to buy that time at the forward position, at the power forward.  So if she is able to go 15-20 minutes solid, boy that is a tremendous bonus for us.  If she is able to play, I will start her, no question about it.  But other than that, do we still have the wherewithal to get the job done?  Absolutely.  I think our guard core is second-to-none.  They are outstanding, they are poised. They are talented.  Between [Swin] Cash, [Katie] Feenstra and/or [Kara] Braxton, and then obviously Plenette Pierson coming off the bench, we have enough weapons to play solid enough defense to get the job down.  But at the same token, you put Cheryl back in the lineup, we are going to have some adjustments there also.  It might throw off our timing a little bit, so we will have to compensate for that also.

You mentioned in your opening remarks that your players are the exact people from last year.  Were you looking to get more role players some minutes in crunch time and close-game situations? And is this something that goes back to your days as a player?

Well, I will answer the question in multiple ways.  We secured the best record; we pushed very hard.  We only had 11 players this year and with Cheryl being down, we only had 10 for half the season.  And we pushed very hard.  I played [Deanna] Nolan and [Katie] Smith; they were –if not two and three in the league in minutes played, then they were three and four; they both played 35 minutes a game, every game.  So we pushed our players to the limit to get the best record.  That we could have set a franchise or been one of the all-time elite teams, record-wise, has absolutely no bearing or importance to us.  The most important thing was to get rested and try to get healthy for the playoffs.  I would like to say that I wanted to see more players that did not get a lot of time to see what they could handle, but the reality is it was just about resting the players that are going to get the job done in the playoffs.  While competitive players, like especially Smith and Nolan did not like it – especially Smith, she wanted every game, play 30-plus minutes every game to win the game – I was not going to allow that.  If we happened to win the game, using other people out there, okay, great, wonderful, congratulations.  But I was not going to put our playoff future at risk – not only risking injury, but getting them a chance to rest and recoup after a long season.  Does it go back to when I was playing? Absolutely, we used to put people on IR the last couple games of the season to make sure they could not play and could not bitch at us about not playing.

Talk about Tyresa Smith - from down our way, Delaware – and what you saw in her.

She’s her own PR machine, before she got here, everyone in the world knew she was coming here.  We expected to be in the playoffs for almost a month – that was our mindset.  If we happened to have some kind of injury at the guard position, it gave us an extra body to bring in, to maybe fill some time.  She is athletic; she can create her own shot, which is why we got her.  And I think, more importantly, as a practice player.  When you get in the playoffs, you work so hard with your starters; you play so many minutes that you really do not get a good practice the next day.  We needed more bodies – we had only had 11.  We needed more bodies to enter the playoffs, to give us a chance to practice and to have a scout team.  But also, we are taking a look at her for next year.  She was intriguing to us in the draft – we could not get to her because we do not have a lot of draft picks anymore.  So we could not get to her.  She is the type of player that fit our system and now we get a chance to look at her in practice and now we have her rights for next year.

It is kind of ironic for her.  She gets picked by Phoenix, who ends up winning the West, and gets cut before the season and now she is with you guys going into the playoffs.

Well you know, she is a good kid, but unless something happens with an injury, I do not see her getting on the court in the playoffs.

Can you talk about Swin and her winning attitude, how she sort of turns it up a notch in the playoffs? Do you relate that to her being from Connecticut, where winning championships is sort of what everybody did?

I think she had that before she went to Connecticut.  AAU she was a champion; high school she was a champion.  So she had already been there.  At Connecticut, she got put into a very, very good system.  I think she makes big plays, very timely plays.  In our 2003 championship, she made two of the most unbelievable plays that won games for us.  She is a gamer, no question about it, and she competes.  She is a smart basketball player.  Smart basketball players I love because they do not make a lot of mistakes and when you get into the playoffs in the heat of battle, especially at the level we play at, you want those players that do not make mental errors.  You want players that make plays and she is one of those.

Has she gotten better year-by-year?  Even though she had the injury the one year, do you feel like her game overall has gotten better each year?

She has expanded her game so much.  Her perimeter game is better than it has been in the past.  I thinks she understands her role a lot better these days, with all the players that we have not only added players, but players like Cheryl Ford that have grown up to be stars of their own right.  She has really found a comfort zone and fitting into the situation, but all that really matters is winning a championship.

If Cheryl comes back or if she does not, how does it affect your lineup in terms of Feenstra and Braxton and trying to figure out who starts?  What is the plan for your frontcourt?

Feenstra is our starting center and Kara Braxton is our backup center.  We can play small ball with Cash at the four.  I will not start Plenette Pierson, I like her energy off the bench. Or I could start someone like Ayana Walker who we just signed and knows our system very well – she was here for three years.  So I have lots of opportunities.  I just need a little bit of somebody in the starting lineup if I wanted to go a little bigger and keep Cash at the three.  Or I can put Cash at the four because Katie Smith can guard any from one to five.  So those issues do not bother me.  So the question you asked, Feenstra is our starting center.

That being said, someone like Janel McCarville who is so versatile at center – who takes that assignment and how do you try to handle her?

Well, the way they match up, Feenstra will guard her.  She is not going to chase Cathrine Kraayveld around the perimeter.  So, you know, we are just going to try to make sure that we keep her under control, space her, make her take perimeter shots and keep her off the glass.  Standard defensive package.

Do you anticipate Tausha Mills to get much playing time in this series?  I know you said that you were waiting to see how much of the offense she picked up.

I do not know yet.  New York is pretty mobile on the perimeter.  It also depends on Cheryl Ford, whether she plays or not.  If she does not play, then she will be inactive then Mills and Ayana Walker will be active.  If Cheryl Ford does play, then either Mills or Walker will be Inactive.  One of them will be active, one of them will not be.  It depends on what the coaching staff feels is happening at practice during the week.  It also depends on what they feel our best match up will be between the two of them.  Do we need strength at the position or do we need mobility at the defensive end at that position?  It is something that we have got them there both for and it is something that we will make a game-by-game decision.

What are your thoughts on the upcoming series with the Liberty?  What do you see that they do well?

They shoot three-balls well.  They are young and energetic.  They move well.  They penetrate and kick out for three-balls, those are pretty much their strengths.  They’ll run a little bit, no question about that and they will be well prepared, we know that going in.  We have some size advantage.  We will try to exploit that – our strength is rebounding, no question about that.  They are a scrappy little team that gets after it and wins games by hard work.

How different has your team’s mindset been this year compared to a couple of years ago when you were defending your first championship?

Well defending the first championship and going into the playoffs, Swin Cash was unavailable because she had just injured her knee.  Having said that, we were still an inconsistent ball club, mentally.  We were really unclear how to defend a championship; we were young and naïve.  This time around, I don’t see that at all.  We have an injury with Cheryl Ford.  Our team is much more focused on the task at hand.  We’re much more confident in our ability to play a solid game from start to finish and not be as erratic as we were back then and I think our guard play is much more mature than it was before.  They are solid both offensively and defensively.  Teams don’t make giant runs on us and we don’t go in to take as much as we used to.

Obviously, you had injury issues the last time you played the Liberty.  Does the fact that you guys split with them and two games went into over-time concern you a little bit going into this match up?

Any team concerns you no matter who it is.  If we are playing Connecticut, we are 4-0 and they are a very dangerous team. The WNBA is strong top to bottom.  You have to bring your best game every night to win and if we don’t we’re going to put ourselves at risk to be beaten.  I think that if we come and we play well and we play focused and hard, we are going to win the Championship and I believe we have the talent to do that.  But any team you play, whether it is New York or Connecticut or Indiana or San Antonio or even those that may not be in the playoffs – the Chicagos and the Washingtons – if you don’t play your best game.

Be there for the 2007 WNBA Playoffs at Madison Square Garden. Score your tickets now, by clicking here, visiting The Garden Box Office or calling 877-WNBA-TIX.