Shock can’t stop Mercury, end of title reign

The Perfect Storm

Shock 92, Mercury 108Player of the Game
September 16, 2007
The Palace of Auburn Hills
Auburn Hills, MI
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Who was the player of the game during Game Five vs. the Mercury?
Who was the player of the game during Game Five vs. the Mercury?
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(DET) D. Nolan, 27
(PHO) P. Taylor, 30
(DET) K. Smith, 6
(PHO) D. Taurasi, 7
(DET) S. Johnson, 8
(PHO) C. Pondexter, 10
(DET) P. Pierson, 1
(PHO) D. Taurasi, 1
On a clear, crisp September evening in Auburn Hills, a storm gathered under The Palace roof. The clouds rolled in soon after Game 5 of the WNBA Finals tipped off: a Cheryl Ford technical foul here, a Penny Taylor free-throw attempt there … and there and there. An 18-point deficit for the Detroit Shock. A record-setting 55 points for the Phoenix Mercury.

Mercury triples dropped like golf ball-sized hail on the Shock and their dreams of back-to-back titles, 11 in all, each more concussive than the next. Whenever the Shock and their fans found a ray of sunlight, the Mercury snuffed it out. And when the final buzzer pierced the air like a clap of thunder, everyone knew the storm had finished.

And the reign was over.

The Detroit Shock are no longer the WNBA champions, vacating the title to a hungrier, sharper Mercury team Sunday with a 108-92 defeat. For the first time in three trips to the WNBA Finals and in eight games facing series elimination, the Shock did not come out on top – and it wasn’t even close. The Shock never led and had to play catch up for 47 minutes after a 2-2 tie. The Mercury scored 30 points in the first quarter, tying the Finals record that Detroit set in Game 3, and 55 in the first half, setting another record.

“They played well, and obviously, we were just always playing from behind the whole game and couldn’t quite catch up,” said guard Katie Smith. “But they obviously, kind of tasted what they wanted and they went for it.”

Not title-game experience, not the home-court advantage, not Cheryl Ford for the 12 minutes and two rebounds her left knee would allow her to give, would be enough against the sharp-shooting Mercury. Not even another vintage performance from Smith, who ignored a season-long slump to make 6-of-9 from 3-point range for 18 points.

“We were unable to get it done. They wanted it real bad. They wanted it more than us. They were playing very well,” said Shock head coach Bill Laimbeer. “And we had some issues on our ballclub, unfortunately, that we couldn’t overcome. And that’s how it works sometimes.”

The Shock had erased double-digit deficits to the Mercury before, but would get no closer than 11 in the fourth quarter. There was no signature Shock rally, no opportunity to win back the series. “We had opportunities, down 12 points, that’s nothing for us,” said forward Swin Cash. “We’ve bounced back from that before. We didn’t get stops at different points in the game and that hurt us.”

The Mercury shot like they had never left The Palace, opening the game 11-of-15 from the floor, a Finals-record 73.3 percent. They exhibited a blitzing offensive arsenal broke nearly every Finals scoring record in this series – individual, team or combined. All five Mercury starters and sixth-woman Kelly Mazzante scored in double figures Sunday.

“They played better. I mean, flat out,” Smith said. “The energy, just a little pep in their step. They were making shots. Just were on it, you know what I mean? They looked like they were just clicking.”

The Shock meanwhile, were stymied by a non-existent frontcourt. Starters Cash and Katie Feenstra never got in sync offensively. They were soon replaced by Game 1 heroes, Plenette Pierson and Kara Braxton. They combined for seven points on 2-of-8 shooting. The considerable smaller Mercury squad outscored Detroit in the paint, 28-20, and at the foul line, 29-19.

“We knew we had to go inside and get some easy baskets and get to the foul line. And that didn’t work,” Laimbeer said. “We weren’t able to do it. And that was, I think, a major part of this game.”

Pierson, who likely would have been Finals MVP had Detroit won, set a Finals record in Game 4 by making 9-of-10 from the floor. Mercury All-Star forward Penny Taylor had six points in that game (her worst game since June 13). But she had 18 by halftime Sunday on 5-of-7 from the field and 8-for-8 from the foul line. She finished with a game-high 30. If the Shock didn’t know it then, they know it now: their opportunity to win the series was in Phoenix. And they weren’t in Phoenix anymore.

“Everybody knows we should have won Game 4 in Phoenix,” said guard Deanna Nolan, who scored a team-high 27 points but was 1-for-6 in the first half when Detroit needed the points. “But as you can see, Game 5 was another chance at it. Unfortunately, we didn’t pull it out tonight.”

The Shock face an off-season of uncertainty with the league’s collective bargaining agreement up in the air next season. Not to mention Cash, Smith and Nolan are all unrestricted free agents. This might be the toughest test yet for a team that has prided itself on its hard-nosed nature – and, if they win a third WNBA title in 2008, their greatest comeback yet.

“We don’t hang our heads,” Laimbeer said. “We understand how the game is played. We’re a very resilient bunch. And I think we look forward to playing in the Finals again next year.”