Kara Braxton of the Detroit Shock shoots a layup against Phoenix's Tangela Smith during Game 1 of the WNBA Finals.
D. Lippitt/NBAE/Getty Images
No Ford, No Problem
By Mark Bodenrader, WNBA.com

AUBURN HILLS, Mich., September 5 -- Detroit Shock forward Cheryl Ford knew only minutes before heading out of the locker room for Game 1 of the 2007 WNBA Finals that she wouldn’t be able give it a go on her injured left knee, which hadn’t prevented her from missing a postseason game until Wednesday.

While the news wasn’t a complete surprise to the Shock, it was still a tough pill to swallow considering its intention was to offset Phoenix’s run-and-gun style with their size advantage up front. The Shock would have to make up for Ford’s presence down low, and specifically on the glass, if they had any chance of defeating the Mercury. Even on a bad knee, Ford has averaged 9.3 rebounds per game in the playoffs, and was coming off a game in which she pulled down a whopping 15 boards.

That meant Detroit needed one its other bigs to step up, whether it was starting center Katie Feenstra or reserve Kara Braxton, or even versatile forward Plenette Pierson.

They all stepped up Wednesday. As a result, the Shock have a 1-0 series edge heading into Game 2.

“We knew coming into this game that we were going to have to pick up the rebounds and get some buckets on the inside,” said Pierson, who posted 26 points on 9-of-13 shooting off the bench to go along with 10 rebounds. “Everything was just going for us. We knew that they had a small inside group and we just had to bang it inside.”

Leading up to Game 1, Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer had had a short leash in the playoffs when it came to Braxton, who was the team’s regular starting center earlier in the season. Entering the contest, she had averaged just 16 minutes a game in the postseason, with her highs being 10 points and six rebounds.

But on Wednesday night, Braxton turned in what Ford later called the best game she’s ever seen her play (and Braxton agreed). The All-Star center finished down low and on the break, scoring 19 points on 8-of-13 shooting. She also grabbed 12 rebounds, with an astounding seven of those coming on the offensive glass.

It marked her first double-double of the playoffs and just second overall in 2007. Braxton’s only other double-double occurred way back on June 22 when she totaled 17 points and 12 rebounds against, of all teams, the Mercury.

“I came out and tried to do whatever I could do for the team,” said Braxton. “We're a man down right now so I know we had to step up and luckily it was a good day for me.”

“Kara Braxton had a monster game,” Laimbeer said. “She used her size well and was very patient.”

Feenstra finished with 10 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in limited minutes, and probably played her best when she was on the court with Braxton.

But Braxton and Feenstra weren’t effective from the start and Detroit’s game plan appeared to be in trouble early on. Attempts to go inside in the first quarter were thwarted by a combination of the Mercury's stingy rover defense and the Shock’s own sloppy play. Braxton turned the ball over twice in her first couple minutes and she and Feenstra both failed to provide any post presence.

On top of that, they were facing a tough match-up at other end as Phoenix center Tangela Smith started off hot from the outside and forced Detroit’s bigs to play away from the hoop.

“The game is a long game and when I would come out, the players and coaches would talk to me about it,” said Feenstra, who was playing in her first WNBA Finals game. "I didn't know where (Phoenix's) trap was coming from, or where the players were coming from. It was just something I had to adjust to."

After the Mercury used a 19-3 burst to open up a 21-10 lead, Laimbeer decided to match Phoenix’s lineup with a small ball crew of his own to stop the bleeding. Pierson was inserted at center and was surrounded with Katie Smith, Deanna Nolan, Swin Cash and Ivory Latta.

The move worked as the Shock kept the game close by scoring the last eight points of the first quarter.

Sticking with the diminutive lineup, the Shock eventually grabbed back the lead at 30-29. Then, soon after Feenstra entered the game, Laimbeer spelled Pierson with Braxton to give the Shock two towers. Detroit proceeded to pound the ball inside and play their brand of basketball, finding holes in the Phoenix zone, which began to show cracks after suffocating Detroit early.

This time, Feenstra and Braxton were able to get position down low, finish in the paint, run and own the offensive glass.

On one play, Braxton and Feenstra combined for three offensive rebounds before Braxton was sent to the line, where she sank both free throws, giving Detroit a 41-29 lead and capping a 17-0 run that put the Shock ahead by 12, 41-29.

“I really don't play too much with Katie at the same time,” said Braxton. “But it was like, whatever you guys call us… the two-headed monster or something. It was fun.”

Meanwhile, Pierson was huge all night against her former team, and in a variety of ways. After playing the role of undersized center to perfection in the first half to allow Detroit to better match up with red-hot Phoenix, Pierson expanded her game in the second half, pouring in 20 of her team-high 26 points in helping Detroit take control of the game.

“We have a lot of All-Stars on our team,” said Pierson. “Whether we're actually an All-Star or an All-Star in our heart, we just do our jobs and can do it any given night.”