Detroit earned its third consecutive WNBA Finals appearance by defeating the Liberty, 75-73. For the first time in the three-game series, the team that led at halftime pulled out the victory.
The Shock benefited from making shots to open the game – something neither team did in the first two contests. Guards Katie Smith and Deanna Nolan set the tone early. Forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin asserted herself for the first time in the series to preserve the win.
New York, the WNBA’s youngest team, once again got outfoxed and outplayed by the Shock, who got older in 2008 by acquiring McWilliams-Franklin, who turns 38 in October. The Liberty are now 0-4 the past two years when they had a chance to eliminate Detroit.
“Give our players credit for coming out in the first half of a back-to-back. We’re not the youngest team around. We got some oldies but goldies on our ball club,” Shock head coach Laimbeer said. “Taj made some moves out there in the fourth quarter that gave us some huge buckets and she’s nearly the oldest player in the league.”
Nolan (14-of-44) and Smith (8-of-26) entered the game shooting only 30 percent for the series. Both games happened away from the familiar confines at The Palace. With the green décor of the Eastern Michigan University Convocation Center serving as the backdrop for the second straight day, Smith and Nolan each made their first jumpers to give Detroit a 4-0 lead.
“We had good looks in New York, we had good looks when we were here, we just couldn’t get them to go down,” said Smith, who finished with 16 points. “It felt good; we both felt good shooting the ball.
“I think we were pressing a little bit the other day, because you want it so bad. We relaxed a little bit, got a couple shots to fall and obviously that got us a little momentum.”
Smith and Nolan shot a combined 10-of-16 in the first half, including 3-of-6 from 3-point range, for 25 points. Nolan’s pull-up jumper 1:19 before halftime maxed out Detroit’s lead at 41-21. The Shock didn’t score that many points in games 1 or 2 until the end of the third quarter.
Still, Monday’s contest never got to the point of the Shock’s prior series-clinching Game 3, when they ran Indiana off the court with a 41-10 first-half lead.
“It wasn’t like we were dominating the game, mentally and physically like they were just completely rocked,” Laimbeer said of the Liberty. “They were playing solid basketball.”
When New York clawed back into the game, McWilliams-Franklin awoke from an offensive slumber. After averaging 13.3 points against the Fever in Round 1, McWilliams-Franklin had 10 points in the conference finals before Game 3.
“She hadn’t had a good series, first two games she was beating her head against the wall. She knew she wasn’t playing well offensively,” Laimbeer said. “But her patience, her professionalism, carried the day for us in the fourth quarter.”
McWilliams-Franklin scored 15 of her 19 points after halftime, including a nifty pump fake and drive that made it 73-67 with 1:15 remaining. “Today I just wanted to add something, and when (New York) started coming back, the only thing I have is that shot fake and that drive,” she said, beginning to laugh. “As slow as my moves are, they still work after 20 years.”
McWilliams-Franklin’s superb outing and a solid bench effort allowed the Shock to win without Plenette Pierson playing a major role. The injured forward couldn’t repeat her admirable Game 2 performance, when she played 24 minutes. Playing with a torn labrum in her right shoulder, Pierson managed just six minutes in Game 3.
“I think she was really bothered by her situation, so I brought her right back out” in the second half, Laimbeer said. “I want to give her as much rest before this next series. Hopefully she’ll be able to play.”
The Shock will face San Antonio in the finals – their third different opponent in as many years. Smith and Nolan are eager to make amends for losing to Phoenix last season, Detroit’s first Finals loss in three trips.
“I think the hunger to get back and compete for it again was huge,” Smith said.
McWilliams-Franklin also has unsettled business in the WNBA Finals, losing in both 2004 and 2005 with Connecticut.
“Just knowing that you’re that close, when you get there again you appreciate it more and put forth that much more effort,” she said. “I think being veterans we know more about that than anybody.”