In 2003, the Shock completed their remarkable worst-to-first turnaround with their first WNBA Championship.
Gregory Shamus (NBAE via Getty Images)
Despite a 2002 season that saw Detroit finish with a franchise-worst 9-23 record, kernels of hope began to pop 10 games into that forgettable season. Former Detroit Pistons Bad Boy Bill Laimbeer took over as head coach following an 0-10 start to the season, and after losing their first three games after the change, the Shock won nine of its last 19 games – a .474 winning percentage. A 9-10 record might not be anything to write home about, but considering the 0-13 beginning to the year it was a significant improvement.
Detroit’s 9-23 season guaranteed them the best shot at the number one pick in the WNBA Draft Lottery, but the ping-pong ball gods had other ideas, as Cleveland and Sacramento’s numbers were drawn ahead of the Shock’s forcing them to settle for the third pick in the draft. Although they were understandably disappointed at the time, Detroit benefited in the long run, selecting Cheryl Ford – best known at the time for being the daughter of NBA great Karl Malone – with the pick, and watching her turn in a Rookie of the Year performance.
The Shock also benefited from the WNBA Dispersal Draft a day earlier, held to disseminate players from the Miami Sol and Portland Fire whose teams had ceased operation during the offseason. Laimbeer tabbed former Sol center Ruth Riley with the first pick in that draft, solidifying his frontcourt for the foreseeable future.
Another key acquisition for the 2003 version of the Shock came in a draft-day trade with the Sacramento Monarchs as Detroit sent the fifth overall pick in the draft, Kara Lawson, to the West Coast in exchange for veteran guard Kedra Holland-Corn.
In hindsight, it seems hard to believe that there was a time during the preseason where the Shock weren’t expected to win the championship. Although Detroit stumbled out of the gate losing to the Charlotte Sting 70-67 in their season opener, they ran off eight straight wins to take a commanding lead in the Eastern Conference. Included in that streak was an overtime win over the 2002 WNBA Champion Los Angeles Sparks, and two wins each against Connecticut and New York.
The Shock stumbled a little bit as July rolled around losing four of six including two more games to those pesky Sting. Detroit followed that up with eight wins over the next nine games pushing their record to 19-6. The one loss during that stretch? To Charlotte.
Shortly thereafter, the Shock clinched a playoff berth, home court throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs and the best record in the WNBA, finishing the season at 25-9. It was the most wins ever for an Eastern Conference team, and one game better than the Sparks regular-season finish of 24-10.
The Shock managed to win in every imaginable fashion during the year – Overtime games? 4-0; Games decided by three-points or less? 6-2; Games decided by 10 points or more? 11-5. Their only Achilles Heal seemed to be the Charlotte Sting – the two seed in the East, whom Detroit could possibly face in the Eastern Conference Finals following an 0-4 effort against them during the season.
First up, though, was the Cleveland Rockers. Detroit was 4-0 against Cleveland during the 2003 season winning the last two meetings by 12 and 15 points respectively. Game 1 was a tight contest however, with Cleveland jumping out to an early lead. But the Shock rallied to take a two-point advantage into the locker room, 46-44.
In the second period, Detroit pulled out to an eight-point lead with 4:54 to go, but a Cleveland run capped by a pair of Chasity Melvin free throws gave the Rockers a one-point lead, 74-73, with 28.9 seconds to go. Following a 20-second time out by the Shock, Detroit had two cracks at the lead before Swin Cash secured an offensive rebound and scored with 4.7 seconds to put the Shock up 75-74. Helen Darling’s turnover with 3.1 seconds remaining gave the ball back to Detroit, and Elaine Powell made one of two free throws for the eventual margin of victory as Helen Darling’s half-court heave with no time remaining missed its mark.
Rather than fade away following the disappointing loss, the Rockers jumped all over Detroit in Game 2, leading by double-digits for most of the game as the Shock never led in the seven-point loss.
Facing elimination in Game 3, the Shock finally played like the No. 1 seed, leading by 13 points with less than eight minutes gone in the first half. The lead at the half was 18 points, and the Rockers got no closer than 11 the rest of the way, giving Detroit its first-ever playoff-series win.
In the other first-round Eastern Conference series, the Connecticut Sun dispatched with the Charlotte Sting two games to none.
The Shock made quick work of the Sun in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals taking the lead for good on a pair of Barbara Farris free throws with 12:08 to go in the first and leading by double-digits for most of the game. Connecticut cut Detroit’s lead to six with 1:07 to go, but the Shock scored the final four points of the game for a 73-63 win.
Although Detroit led by double-figures in the first half of Game 2, Connecticut proved to be a difficult team to put away as they erased an 11-point halftime deficit to take a two-point lead, 64-62, with 8:57 remaining in regulation. The Sun led by as many as four, with 4:23 to go, but a Holland-Corn three-pointer and an Elaine Powell running jumper gave the lead back to Detroit. A steady parade to the free throw line helped the Shock pull out the six-point win and send them to their first-ever WNBA Finals where they would face the Los Angeles Sparks.
The Sparks’ trip to the Finals didn’t come easily as they lost the first game in each of their two Western Conference series before eventually upending Minnesota and Sacramento on their way to a third straight Finals appearance.
Detroit and Los Angeles finished first and second in the league in points per game during the regular season, but both teams came out flat early in Game 1 of the Finals. DeLisha Milton’s three-pointer with almost three minutes gone in the first were the first points of the game, and the Shock didn’t dent the scoring column until the 15:57 mark in the first with a Ruth Riley free throw which made the score 6-1 LA.
Detroit closed to within one at 13-12 with 11:20 to go before the half, but Los Angeles went on a 27-5 run to lead by 23 with 1:08 before the break. Lisa Leslie’s 14 points in the first paced the Sparks, while Swin Cash led Detroit with just six points. Detroit was never able to reduce the lead below double-digits in the second half as the Sparks cruised to a 75-63 win before their home crowd.
Los Angeles’ easy win in Game 1 had the Sparks thinking sweep and three-peat as Game 2 rolled around at The Palace of Auburn Hills, but this time it was Detroit who jumped out to an early double-digit advantage leading 38-22 at the break.
Los Angeles cut the lead to nine on a Leslie jumper with 14:25 to go in the second, and a Tamecka Dixon lay-up with 8:48 remaining cut the Shock lead to two, 50-48. A Leslie lay-up tied the game at 57 five minutes later, and with 1:28 to go, another Leslie lay-up gave the Sparks a four-point lead.
Coach Laimbeer called a timeout with 1:25 to go and substituted Kedra Holland-Corn for Cheryl Ford – a move which promptly paid dividends as she drained a three-pointer with 1:11 remaining to cut the Los Angeles lead to one, 61-60. The teams traded misses over the next two possessions, and with 12.1 seconds to go, a Leslie foul sent Deanna Nolan to the free throw line. Nolan drained both shots, and Milton missed a 15-footer with time running out as the Shock evened the series at one game apiece.
As the teams filed on to The Palace floor for a deciding Game 3, they were met by a WNBA record 22,076 screaming fans – the first sell-out in Finals history, and the first in the history of the Shock franchise. Detroit once again jumped out to a double-digit lead up 14 with nine minutes gone in the first half. A late Sparks run gave them a short-lived lead, and the Shock took a five-point advantage into the locker room at the break, 42-37.
The Shock extended their lead to 11 on two occasions early in the second, but the teams found themselves tied at 66 with 6:27 to go. Over the next four-plus minutes, neither team led by more than three points, and with 24.8 seconds to go a Milton three cut Detroit’s lead to one. Deanna Nolan and Cheryl Ford each made a pair of free throws down the stretch as the Shock completed their remarkable worst-to-first turnaround with their first WNBA Championship.
Individual accolades abounded as well as Ford was named Rookie of the Year, Laimbeer took home Coach of the Year honors and Riley was named Finals MVP. Ford, Cash and Nolan were also each named to the All-WNBA Second Team.
With four out of five starters still shy of their 25th birthdays, the Shock looked primed for a long run of championship caliber basketball.