Braxton Comes Up Big
Go figure: the Shock’s mercurial center helped bring down the Mercury.
Braxton delivered more than 19 points and 12 rebounds in the Shock’s 108-100 victory over the Phoenix Mercury. She delivered on the promise that Shock head coach Bill Laimbeer saw in her when he traded the 2003 Finals MVP, center Ruth Riley, in the off-season. It was only her second double-double all year.
“I’m really not offensive minded, I’d rather pass it to my teammate or do something like that,” Braxton said. “Once I get rebounds and I hear my teammates, I really feed off my team. When I hear my teammates and everybody cheering for me, and congratulating me for anything little, I just feed off that and it builds and builds.”
The fourth-year center was efficient, shooting 8-for-13 from the field, and grabbed seven offensive rebounds. The Shock outscored Phoenix in the paint, 50-36, and in second-chance points, 29-16, despite missing Cheryl Ford for the first time in postseason. Guard Pee Wee Johnson replaced Ford in the starting lineup, but it was Braxton who restored her presence. Braxton was hesitant to say the team gained momentum from her performance, but Plenette Pierson, sitting next to her, nodded dramatically in the affirmative. “Yes, you could say that,” Braxton said. “I played pretty good today and they love when I play good. Yeah they fed off it a little bit.”
In the first round against New York – an up-tempo, 3-point shooting team like Phoenix – the 6-foot-6 Braxton and 6-foot-8 Katie Feenstra were run off the floor. Feenstra played even less than Braxton in the series, 12 minutes combined in Games 2 and 3. But on Wednesday, when Laimbeer needed to rest Pierson, he went with the twin-tower tandem and they built the Shock’s biggest lead of the game, 41-29. Braxton and Feenstra combined to score all 11 points after Swin Cash’s free throws made it a 30-29 game.
“In the first half it worked well for us, it got us back in the game,” Laimbeer said. “It got us a lead and with those two big towers in there, against their zone, they have a difficult time trying to stop us on the inside because we’re just so big.”
And that was even without Ford, who did not re-injure her left knee but was too sore to play after back-to-back games to close the East finals and no sufficient time to rest. “The status going into today’s game was (Ford) was not going to play and that we were shooting for her to play on Saturday,” Laimbeer said. As she has been virtually all year, Ford’s availability in Saturday’s Game 2 will be a game-time decision.
Pierson – who tied her career-high with 26 points and 10 rebounds – showed her usual, rock-steady form that won her Sixth Woman of the Year honors. But Braxton – whose playoff career highs were 12 points and four rebounds before Wednesday – was far more suspect. In the first six games of the playoffs, Braxton had six offensive rebounds, total. She had three in the first half Wednesday in just seven minutes. Combined, Pierson and Braxton led a bench corps that outscored Phoenix’s, 50-12.
“Players who have played roles all year long stepped forward today,” Laimbeer said. “We all know what Plenette Pierson does all the time. Kara Braxton had a monster game, she used her size well, was very patient.”
Braxton’s second-half effort repeatedly helped stave off the Mercury. A Braxton offensive rebound led to a Pierson go-ahead jumper at 62-61. Her block in the final minute of the third quarter prevented a tie game at 66, and led to a Cash jumper, pushing Detroit’s lead to 68-64. She scored nine points in the fourth quarter, including five straight that pushed Detroit’s lead to 92-83, their largest lead after halftime.
“Once she got going the momentum just kept building for her and I’m very happy for her,” said Laimbeer, whose team lost Game 1 of the Finals in 2003 and 2006 and went on to win the title. “But as we’ll tell her, it’s only one game. We want it every game. That’s what we expect. And if she stays focused, she’ll be okay, and that’s what we’re hoping for.”
Braxton – who has heard this from Laimbeer before – said she wasn’t good at the postgame interviews. But on Wednesday, she had all the right answers. “I hope to play better in the future,” she said, “like Saturday.”