A Hole in the Middle
But now that head coach Bill Laimbeer is looking for post players who can take up significant minutes off the bench, defend and grab rebounds – especially on the offensive glass – Braxton’s absence was conspicuous in an 81-73 defeat to the Houston Comets Tuesday night at The Palace.
“Yeah, there’s no question about that, with three of our frontcourt players around, too many [Houston] offensive rebounds and not enough size,” said Laimbeer, who had to rely on center Katie Feenstra (26 minutes, tying her season high), forward Plenette Pierson (32 minutes, also tying her season high) and newcomer Tausha Mills.
The Shock took a momentary lead at the end of the third quarter, 59-58, but never led again after a 61-61 tie early in the fourth quarter. The Comets, who had been eliminated from the playoffs in their previous contest, doubled up the Shock on rebounds in the fourth quarter, 12-6.
“They got us on the boards a bit but we still could have won the ball game,” said Katie Smith, who scored 15 points. “Whether Kara’s here or Swin’s not playing or [Ford’s] not playing, I still feel like we have a chance to win a ballgame. And if we mentally come in and take away some of the mistakes we made throughout the ballgame, maybe it’s a different story.”
All-Star forward Tina Thompson scored 10 of her game-high 25 points in the game’s first six minutes, helping Houston (12-20) take a 24-23 first-quarter lead. Deanna Nolan scored eight of her team-high 20 points in the first quarter to keep Detroit close. Laimbeer admitted his competitiveness also got the best of him, playing Nolan 31 minutes and Katie Smith 27.
“I told them after the game I played them too many minutes,” he said. “That won’t happen again the next two games. I probably tried to win this game more than I should have. We’re in a position to maybe win it, I played them, that won’t happen again.”
As much as Laimbeer would like to rest his starters for the playoffs, the Shock simply don’t have enough bodies to allow it to the degree he would like. The Shock already carry one of the shortest rosters in the league with 11 players – the league minimum – and has operated without Cheryl Ford more than half its games. Swin Cash played only 15 minutes due to a sore back and Mills – who grabbed nine rebounds, four offensive, in 16 minutes – is still learning the offense, which Laimbeer added new plays to last week. All of which has further increased the workload for Feenstra, who went from backup to center-by-committee to, for at least one more game, the team’s only true center.
“I don’t know if its an extra burden because we’ve got Plenette, we’ve got Swin, the other guards are stepping up too,” said Feenstra, who had only four points and five rebounds in 26 minutes. “We’re holding first place so these games are about running our new offense, trying to get acclimated with other players. So it’s really not much of a burden.”
It is nonetheless a disconcerting development for Braxton, who had started to play her best basketball of the year. She had scored in double figures three of the last four games, averaging 12.7 points, before the league handed down a two-game suspension for a DUI conviction in Ohio that was finalized Tuesday.
"I don't know,” Laimbeer said, when asked if this was a setback for Braxton. “I mean, this is something you have to deal with. Such is life. This is real world stuff. We'll just wait until it comes back around."
The loss drops Detroit to 24-8, meaning they can only tie the 2005 and 2006 Connecticut Sun for the best 34-game record in WNBA history if they win the last two games at Minnesota and at Indiana. The distinction is not anywhere on the Shock’s radar screen, and perhaps for good reason – neither Connecticut team to go 26-8 won the championship.