Braxton’s inspired play too much for Fever

Braxton Bolsters Bench

Kara Braxton competed with a fire seldom seen from her Wednesday night, and in the end, her Detroit Shock teammates burned the Indiana Fever, 76-71.

Braxton scored a career-high 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting with seven rebounds - and she did so off the bench. Rookie Olayinka Sanni replaced the fourth-year center in the starting lineup.

“My teammates depend on me and I know I’ve got to step it up,” Braxton said. “And this was just a great game for me today.”

Make no mistake, it was a collective effort for the Shock (2-1), who led by 14 in the first half but found themselves trailing into the fourth quarter, 58-56.

Guard Deanna Nolan drained a go-ahead jumper with two minutes left, and her subsequent steal set up Plenette Pierson’s put-back for a three-point lead. Nolan pushed the lead to 72-69 by draining two free throws with 24.7 seconds left. She went to the line after being fouled on a breakaway started by a Cheryl Ford block.

Nolan scored eight of her 14 points in the fourth quarter - making her the only Detroit starter to score in double figures - and Pierson had 20 points on 10-of-13 shooting.

But this night belonged to Braxton, whom Laimbeer has decided, for the second year in a row, would be a better asset as a reserve.

“I talked to her yesterday and told her we’re going to make a move to put her on the bench,” he said. “I equated it to when I was playing with the Pistons, that the starting lineup was really cerebral. We were very into patterns and covering for each other and knowing what we were doing. And right now, she wasn’t in that mix. Then I also talked about our bench of [John] Salley, [Dennis] Rodman and Vinnie Johnson, of they were the ones who’d come into the game and be the athleticisms, the sparks and the energy players and she was tonight.”

Braxton was more direct in her assessment. “He’s just trying to figure out the right chemistry right now,” she said. “I don’t have a problem with it.”

Braxton wouldn’t say she was motivated by her removal from the lineup, but she sure played like it. Often derided for not being assertive at the offensive end, Braxton scored immediately upon entering the game at the 5:50 mark, draining a 13-foot jumper on the in-bounds play.

She later stepped into a passing lane for a steal, and got the payoff at the other end with a spin move past Fever center Tammy Sutton-Brown - whom Braxton started in front of in last year’s All-Star Game - to put the Shock ahead, 18-6. She scored eight points on 3-of-4 shooting in the first quarter.

“They tell me that constantly (to be assertive),” Braxton said of her teammates, “and it’s something that I have to imbed into my game and go up strong every time I get the ball.”

The Fever had as many points (10) as turnovers in the first quarter, but scored 11 unanswered in the second quarter to pull within 24-21.

Pierson made a layup to end Indiana’s run, and start her own 14-point quarter on 7-of-7 shooting. “When Deanna and Katie [Smith] were coming off for screens or hand-offs they were pretty much chasing them so my man was leaving and they were just making great passes and finding me,” Pierson said.

The Fever made quick work of Detroit’s seven-point halftime lead, pulling even at 45 in the third. Then Braxton struck again with an offensive rebound and put-back, drawing the foul. She missed the free throw, but scored nine points in the quarter on 4-of-4 shooting. Entering the fourth, Braxton’s 20 points matched the output of the starting lineup that she was not apart of.

Nor will be any time soon, Laimbeer said.

“Yes, I anticipate that will be our starting lineup in the near future,” Laimbeer said. “It gives us somebody who will run hard, rebound the basketball, keep it simple and execute their responsibility. Kara’s going to come in and look to score and be an energy player.”

That somebody is Sanni, who played only 9:38 but was a key part of the team’s 8-0 opening run. “I was excited, just thinking anything I can do the help the team,” said Sanni, who had six points on 2-of-2 shooting. “Just go out there play hard as long as I can, and if I need a sub we have a strong bench.”

When Braxton produces like she did Wednesday - in a manner reminiscent of her 19 points and 12 rebounds in Game 1 of last year’s WNBA Finals - the Shock seem to overcome all ills, such as 21 turnovers against Indiana.

“It’s a great boost for us,” Pierson said. “Kara’s a big girl, she can do a lot of things that most big girls can’t do and just for her to have a great game like she did tonight just completes our team. We just hope and pray she’ll bring that the rest of the season.”

With Pierson and Braxton combining for 42 points on 18-of-23 shooting, the Fever clearly missed the interior defense of forward Tamika Whitmore, who was traded to Connecticut for All-Star Katie Douglas.

“I think they’re more of a perimeter team than they were before with Whitmore, with the big body in there and the shot - she was such a confident shooter from the big position,” Laimbeer said. “We’ve always matched up pretty well with Douglas.”

Douglas scored a team-high 26 for the Fever but lost to the Shock again. She went 0-4 against Detroit with the Sun in 2007.

Always tempted by her exceptional athleticism, Laimbeer decided to protect Braxton - and not her more consistent backup Katie Feenstra - before the 2008 expansion draft. He remains optimistic Braxton can find a role. “This may be her niche and let’s see how this goes,” Laimbeer said. “I think this is the right spot for her right now.”

The Shock visit Feenstra and the first-year Atlanta Dream on Friday. It’s just the next test in the ongoing Kara Braxton experiment.

”I’m not sure,” Braxton said when asked if she feels more differently as a reserve than a starter. “It’s a new year so that was the first time. Maybe it is a good thing for me, coming off the bench. But we’ll see later on in the season.”

AfterShocks: The Shock, who shot 0-for-8 from beyond the arc, did not make a 3-pointer for the first time since Aug. 27, 2005 against Washington.