Cheryl Ford has averaged 24.3 minutes per game during the postseason.
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While outstanding performances have come to be commonplace for Nolan at this point, Ford’s impact remains an uncertainty on a day-to-day basis.
Ford has been nursing an injured left knee since returning to action for the start of the playoffs, which has limited both her minutes and effectiveness. It has also prevented her from practicing with her teammates at full speed, as was the case on Tuesday as the Shock took the court at the Palace of Auburn Hills in preparation for Game 1 of the 2007 WNBA Finals against Phoenix.
“It’s sore. Very sore,” said Ford, adding that the soreness and swelling get worse and worse with each passing game.
“Cheryl is struggling right now, so that bothers us,” said Shock head coach Bill Laimbeer. “With her not being able to work hard worries you as a coach, but you have to save the legs.”
The pain appeared to get to Ford early on in the team’s decisive Game 3 versus Indiana on Monday, as she went scoreless in the first half and was minimized on the glass. However, Ford refused to relegate herself to the bench and had a monster second half that helped lead Detroit to its second straight trip to the championship round. She collected nine rebounds in the third quarter alone and finished with 15 for the game.
The stretched-out format of the Finals and the absence of back-to-back contests should benefit Ford and the Shock. The 2007 All-Star Game MVP has had to play on consecutive nights in each of the team’s first two playoffs series, causing Laimbeer to limit her minutes in such instances.
So there is potential for Ford to give Phoenix serious trouble up front in the series. It's just that the power forward, undeniably bankable when healthy, isn't a sure thing as the Finals get ready to commence, and that will likely alter how both teams approach the best-of-five set, but especially Detroit.
Nolan Keeps Rollin’
Nolan enters Game 1 of the WNBA Finals coming off one of the better performances of her illustrious career. Nolan poured in a franchise-record 30 points and drained 7-of-9 3-point attempts in Monday’s win over the Fever. More important, she virtually kept the Shock in the game while the rest of her teammates struggled with their shots.
Despite all the praise and accolades Nolan has received for her Game 3 heroics, she remains focused on the team’s No. 1 task.
“I think she’s coming in with a quiet confidence,” said Laimbeer. “She doesn’t beat her chest and say how great she is. She just goes about it and does her job.”
Nolan will have her work cut out for her on the defensive end though, as she will match up with Phoenix’s white-hot Cappie Pondexter, who is the top scorer in the playoffs with a 26.2 points per game average.
But Nolan feels that Pondexter and the high-scoring Mercury just need to be challenged a bit more on defense, something the Shock are more than willing to do.
“No one in the playoffs in the West has played defense against them, to tell you the truth,” said Nolan of the Mercury. “If you look at what other teams do, they’re scared to help off shooters. But we’re going to help with team defense.”
The rest of the Shock defensive assignments have also been set. Katie Smith will be checking Diana Taurasi, Swin Cash will match up with Kelly Miller, Cheryl Ford will D up Penny Taylor and Katie Feenstra will guard Tangela Smith.
Regular Season Means Nothing Now
The Shock were a perfect 2-0 against the Mercury during the regular season, posting a 87-84 road win and a 111-82 home win.
“We got them twice this year, but they didn’t start playing really well until the second half of the season,” said Smith.
Indeed, the Shock and Mercury last played on July 8. Since then, the Mercury have been the hottest team in the league, compiling a record of 16-3.
Sense of Style
The Mercury’s fast-paced style of play is well documented and feared by many in the league. On the flip side, the Shock have a size advantage up front that they will likely look to exploit.
“We can’t get into a run-and-shoot game with them,” said Ford. “That’s their game. That’s what they want to do.”
But Ford’s coach isn’t so quick to concede the fast break game to Phoenix, arguing that the Shock have the ability to play the half-court, slow-down game AND the up-tempo game.
“We can play both ways,” said Laimbeer. “We have the athletes and we have the speed, so that doesn’t bother us.”
The defending champion Shock enter the Finals sporting a roster loaded with WNBA playoff experience, whereas the Mercury for the most part are rather new to the postseason party.
Still, Detroit isn’t convinced that it gives them a decided advantage.
“It’s just a basketball game and a basketball series,” said Laimbeer. “We’ve been here before so we know what to expect and what to do, so hopefully that will win out.”
“With that style it looks like they’re basically playing pick-up,” said Smith. “They’re just getting out there and running, in an organized way. And it works for them. Right now they’re flowing and I don’t see them having any jitters or coming in here and being wary of the bright lights. They’ve all been there and seen that, so I don’t see that affecting them at all.”
Slow to Spark
The Shock have gotten off to a slow start in virtually every game of this postseason, which is something very uncharacteristic of a veteran team, never mind one that had the league’s best overall record.
“Energy-wise, sometimes we just need to get our legs under us,” said Smith. “The good thing about us is we don’t really panic. We understand the game has its momentum changes. From the first five minutes to the last five minutes, it’s going to be different, whether it’s foul trouble or it’s knocking down shots. You just have to weather the storm a little bit.”
You only have to go back to Monday’s game for the latest example. The Shock were down 16-3 to Indiana, but ultimately won the contest by 16, 81-65.
“We know that we’re capable of doing it because we’ve done it so many times before,” said Nolan.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Mercury are known for their rover defense, or the 1-2-2 zone. The Shock will be looking to find the holes in that zone early to break it down and perhaps force Phoenix to pull out of it.
“It’s going to be very important (to try to get them out of that zone) and get them out of their comfort zone,” said Nolan. “How rarely have we seen them play man-to-man? Once or twice this year? So, you knock them out of that comfort zone, out of that rover defense that they play, and see what happens.”