The Great Escape
“We saw the focus in our players, we saw the Shock focus of how we do business,” said head coach Bill Laimbeer, days after he said he expected such a turnaround from his team’s abysmal Game 2 showing. “A quiet, calm about us. A confidence about us. A determination that we were going to come and compete to win a basketball game.”
After decisive outcomes in Game 1 and 2 split the series, the third contest was up for grabs. Both teams played well enough to win it. Both made enough mistakes and missed enough shots to lose it. The difference in the 88-83 victory, as it so often is with the Shock, was the backcourt. Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith have not had the greatest of shooting nights in these Finals, but came up big when called upon Wednesday night.
“Everybody kept saying, ‘What about your backcourt?’, ‘What about your backcourt?’ ‘Do they have to step up?’” Laimbeer said. “And I kept saying no, because we want to go inside. We wanted to able to make sure we can some easy buckets and get to the free throw line if we can.”
Smith looked like the All-Star of a year ago, scoring 11 straight points during one critical third-quarter stretch when the Mercury – who shot 2-for-15 from 3-point range in the first half – were starting to find their shooting touch. Smith made three consecutive triples and another 16-footer to keep Detroit in control.
“I thought the turning point in the game or the defining moment in the game was her three or four shots that she made in a row there,” Laimbeer said. “She had all the confidence in the world. She knew it was her time to make those shots and she did.”
When Smith picked up her fifth foul with nearly seven minutes to go, Nolan took over. She scored nine of her 20 points in the fourth quarter and grabbed a career-high 11 rebounds. After the Mercury had cut the Detroit lead to 79-77 – the closest it was all night – Nolan’s only 3-pointer put the Shock back in the driver’s seat with 1:53 to play. She also made four free throws in the final eight seconds to clinch it.
Pee Wee Johnson got things started for the Shock off the bench. She had her only 20-point game in the regular season at Phoenix, and in her first game back made her first two 3-point attempts, scoring a team-high 11 in the first half on 4-for-6 shooting. As it was in Game 1, the Shock reserves were a big boost, outscoring the Mercury’s bench 31-6. Phoenix head coach Paul Westhead played only two reserves.
“I think everybody made some big plays tonight whether rebound or scoring,” Smith said. “I’m just glad I was able to knock down a couple shots throughout the game.”
The notoriously slow-starting Shock had perhaps their finest opening quarter of the year with a Finals-record 30 points on 54 percent shooting. They had 35 points in the first quarters of Game 1 and 2 combined.
The Mercury missed a golden opportunity, in the sense this game was winnable for them when by all measures they were not having a good night. They missed several open looks early and layups down the stretch, culminating in their first home playoff loss in 2007. The Mercury had 10 offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter alone – nearly all of them off missed free throws – but rarely capitalized, scoring only four second-chance points.
“For our team, we had what I would say is misfortune. We had some good looks and just didn’t make baskets. We’re a shooting team, so if you’re not making shots, it really gets tough on you,” Westhead said. “But nonetheless, we had a 3-point shot that could have tied the game.”
The Mercury also did not have a 30-point scorer for the first time in three games. Diana Taurasi scored 22, but was 3-for-11 from 3-point range. Penny Taylor – who scored a Finals record 32 in the Finals opener – shot only nine times, ending with 16 points and 14 rebounds.
For the second time in the Finals, the late theatrics were marred by a physical confrontation, this time between Taylor and Plentte Pierson. The Shock forward, formerly of the Mercury, did not please one of her former teammates. “She threw a punch, easy as that,” said Taurasi, who added the league should consider disciplinary action for the skirmish. “We just saw the film. If you get hit in the face and it’s not a punch, I don’t know what else is.”
The third double-technical incident of these Finals should add even more tension to Thursday’s Game 4, when the Shock can clinch their second straight WNBA title.
“Of course it’s going to be tough, just because it’s an elimination game for them. But for us we just have to stay patient like we did tonight,” Nolan said. “Move the ball around, knock down open shots, and get the ball inside, which creates open outside shots for us. We just have to knock them. But of course it’s going to be a hard game to win. But we’re looking forward to it.”