In this year’s finals, which begin Wednesday at The Palace, the Shock - the lowest scoring team in the playoffs at 68.0 points per game - will face the highest scoring team, the Phoenix Mercury. And if you think that’s a transition … well, it won’t be the last time you hear that word as the Shock players break down the Finals matchup.
“Transition is a big one, the way they run, and also their versatility in the post,” said guard Katie Smith, giving her scouting report on the Western Conference champions. “You know Penny Taylor is like a guard-post. Transition defense is going to be huge. And we have to rebound. We can rebound on them, as long as we can knock down some shots. But we’ve got to get back, got to get matched (up) because they’re on fire now. They’ve been playing really, really well.”
The Mercury featured the league’s most explosive offense during the regular season en route to the West’s best record (23-11). They have kept it going in the playoffs, averaging 99.0 points in two-game sweeps of Seattle and San Antonio. Mercury guard Cappie Pondexter is the leading playoff scorer at 26.2 points per game. Taylor (20.2 ppg) and Diana Taurasi (20.0 ppg) are also among the top five.
If that wasn’t enough of a challenge for Detroit’s perimeter defenders, the Mercury made 290 3-point field goals. The Shock were No. 2 - with 87 fewer triples. Taurasi, who struggled against the Shock in two regular-season contests, led the league in 3-pointers for the second straight year. The New York Liberty utilized the long ball effectively against Detroit in the first round, knocking down 20 treys in three games. It is defensive liability Laimbeer intends to address before the series - even if he’s not quite sure how yet.
“They’re not afraid to shoot unconscious shots,” Laimbeer said. “That always worries a coach because you can play the best defense in the world predicated upon normal basketball, so when they do some really wild stuff that kind of throws you for a loop, you just hope they don’t go in.”
While Laimbeer asserts it will be a “contrast of styles” between his taller, more physical Shock and the sleek, run-and-gun Mercury attack, his All-Star guard, Deanna Nolan, sees it differently.
“We’re both transition teams, we both like to get out and go,” she said. “This series is going to be a matter of making shots. They have shooters all around. Even in the post positions, they can still step out and shoot 3s. We just have to get out and contest their shooters and get out to them early and really slow down their transition.”
If anyone from the Shock appears ready to take on the Mercury at their own game, it’s Nolan. She shot 4-for-5 from behind the arc in Game 2 of the East finals against Indiana, then followed it up with a remarkable 7-for-9 night in the decisive game. She had 30 points in Game 3, a franchise playoff record, and averaged 22.3 in the series.
The Shock’s top scorer against the Mercury in the regular season was reserve guard Pee Wee Johnson, who has not played extensively in the playoffs but is a good fit in Laimbeer’s “small ball” lineup when he chooses to deploy it. Johnson made seven triples and scored 23 points against the Mercury in June; it was her only 20-point game this season. “We have the athletes to keep up with the pace,” Laimbeer said.
What happens in the regular season is not always the best indicator of how a playoff series will go but that’s been the case through two rounds for the Shock, who were pushed to the brink by the only two East teams to defeat them twice this summer, New York and Indiana.
Now come the Mercury, whose number the Shock seem to have this year. Detroit won both meetings and did so in ways that could weigh on the Mercury players’ minds before Game 1 tips off. The Shock overcame their two largest deficits of the year against Phoenix, 16 points on June 22 and 11 on July 8. In the first meeting Detroit held the Mercury to nine fourth-quarter points and won, 87-84. The Shock took the second game in a blowout of epic proportions, 111-83, setting a franchise record for points and a league record with 72 points in the second half.
Nonetheless, Laimbeer - who has a 5-5 record against Phoenix since 2003 - was quick to point out that “last year they stomped us twice” to the tune of 14 and 15 points. The June 22 victory was only the Shock’s third all-time in 11 visits to Phoenix.
In other words, Laimbeer realizes what happened in the regular season between these teams won’t necessarily carry over to the WNBA Finals. That might be the Shock’s toughest transition of all.