Taj McWilliams-Franklin scored 23 points in her first Finals game with the Shock.
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SAN ANTONIO, October 1, 2008 – For the first time this postseason, Deanna Nolan was not the Shock’s leading scorer. Instead, Detroit used the inside-outside duo of Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Katie Smith to carry the offensive load and allowed Nolan to concentrate on her defensive task of shadowing San Antonio’s leading scorer, Becky Hammon.
Smith led all scorers with a playoff career-high 25 points, while McWilliams-Franklin added 23 points of her own to lead the Shock to a 77-69 win in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Wednesday night.
“We ride Deanna a lot, we have all year long, so it’s great when we can give her a little bit of a break,” said Smith. “With Taj stepping up, Kara [Braxton] giving us good minutes and me knocking down shots, it’s nice because then she can distribute the ball and create. She created a lot of shots for myself and that’s because San Antonio was so worried about her.”
Nolan was more than happy to let her teammates take over offensively while she focused her efforts on the defensive end.
“Katie and Taj set the tone for us tonight at the beginning of the game,” Nolan said. “In the last series we had problems starting out making shots and they are the ones that got us going, especially Taj and then Katie followed right behind her. It’s not necessarily that I have to always try to get off because we have other player that can step in and help fill that role.”
McWilliams-Franklin started things off for the Shock, scoring eight points in the opening quarter with a combination of jump shots from the outside as well as moves inside the paint.
“Taj started us off, she was knocking down jumpers,” said Smith. She also gives us a post presence; she’s got those kind of slow mo moves that get it done. She’s just crafty and that puts a lot of pressure on their defense.”
After McWilliams-Franklin got things going, then it was time for Smith to take over. After scoring just three points in the first quarter, she dropped in nine points in the second, followed by another seven in the third. She finished 8-of-17 from the field, 4-of-8 from 3-point range and a perfect 5-of-5 from the free throw line.
Smith’s performance did not come as a surprise to Laimbeer.
“I expect Katie Smith to perform admirably every night offensively and defensively,” said Laimbeer. “Tonight, I thought that she was tremendous. I thought she wanted the ball, she wanted to take over the game, she imposed her will on the basketball game today and we needed it. Nolan was working hard defensively and they were taking things away from Nolan so having another scorer like that take the pressure off of Deanna was tremendous.”
Nolan had her hands full with Hammon and she did an admirable job of covering San Antonio’s leader. Through the first three quarters Nolan limited Hammon to just four points on 1-of-5 shooting to go along with four assists.
"It was all about limiting her touches, not giving her easy looks, making sure I was on her hip all the time,” Nolan said of her defensive strategy against Hammon. “She likes coming off a lot of screens and they look for her to get open. When she has the ball, just stick with her, try to get the ball out of her hands and just keep someone in her area at all times.”
Hammon finally broke through in the fourth quarter, scoring nine points to lead a furious San Antonio comeback. After building a 14-point lead early in the quarter, the Shock began to cool down offensively and the Silver Stars erased the deficit in less than six minutes. With the score tied at 69 with two minutes to play, McWilliams-Franklin and Smith made two big plays to put the Shock back in control for good.
First, McWilliams-Franklin made a great pass to Braxton underneath the hoop for a layup to put the Shock up 71-69. Braxton was fouled on the layup, but could not complete the three-point play. The rebound resulted in a jumpball between San Antonio’s Vicki Johnson and Detroit’s Alexis Hornbuckle. Detroit won the tip and Smith hit a step back jumper to put the Shock back up by four points with 1:42 to play.
While Smith has been with the Shock throughout this three-year stretch of Finals appearances and the 2006 championship, McWilliams-Franklin joined the team just over a month ago, and has fit in very quickly.
“I think this worked well because we have players that are not only prolific scorers, but they are unselfish,” said McWilliams-Franklin. “If you have players that are selfish and need the ball and don’t really care, then I think I would have been put off.
“But I came to a place where these girls only care about winning. They are willing to pass when they are doubled, they are willing to pass when you’re open, and that made it so much easier to integrate myself in the offense.”
When Cheryl Ford was lost for the season with an ACL tear, Detroit brought in McWilliams-Franklin to help fill the void and got exactly the player they needed.
“Getting Taj was huge. We stayed contenders because of getting her,” Smith said. “I love Taj. I’ve been playing with and against her for 12 years. It’s her style, her veteran savvy, her understanding the game; she’s such a smart player.
“She understands when to set picks, she understands the offense, she reads things, that’s what we needed and with Cheryl going down we needed it big. With her coming in, it put us here. If she wasn’t there, I don’t think we would be here, especially after losing Cheryl. It would have been hard.”
With her performance in Game 1 of the Finals, McWilliams-Franklin continues to prove why her acquisition has been so important for the Shock. The 37-year-old veteran is now just two wins away from capturing her first WNBA title.