The Reign Restored
In other words, Detroit couldn’t have been in better shape to prove everybody wrong again.
Detroit did not simply regain their WNBA crown Sunday but did so in a fashion that eliminated not only San Antonio but also any doubt that they are, at this time of year, the best women’s basketball team in the world.
The Shock completed their Finals sweep with a 76-60 Game 3 victory at the Eastern Michigan University Convocation Center. Their methodical three-game dismantling of the Western Conference champions seemed an understated finale to what has been an extraordinary struggle for five and a half months.
“If you look at our season as a whole, the adversity that we went through, from Cheryl Ford starting the year with no practice time on half a knee, to (Elaine) Powell out for 20 games with a foot injury to losing Cheryl for the whole season, multiple suspensions, trades, rookies, the whole package – you wouldn’t have thought that we would be in this position,” Shock head coach Bill Laimbeer said. “But we did. And that’s all that matters to the players and the coaches that go to every battle every game. We knew we would be there.”
Katie Smith, Detroit’s leading scorer in all three games, capped her Finals MVP performance with 18 points and six rebounds. Despite picking up two first-half fouls that put her on the bench for the first time in the series, Smith once again played the closer, scoring 11 of her 18 points in the fourth quarter, helping Detroit turn a four-point lead into 18.
“Going into the third quarter we were up four – that was huge, we obviously won that quarter and flip-flopped it and got up four,” said Smith, referring to Detroit’s 34-30 halftime deficit. “We knew, all right, ten minutes. That’s what it boiled down to.”
Smith scored five straight points to usher in the celebration midway through the quarter, first off an inbounds play with her foot on the 3-point line to give Detroit a 12-point lead. With the crowd of 9,000 already roaring, Smith’s next shot was from well behind the 3-point line, pushing Detroit’s lead to 62-47 with five minutes to play.
There would be no fourth-quarter collapse as there had been in Phoenix in 2007, when the Shock let a fourth-quarter lead evaporate in the potential clincher and a 2-1 series lead slip away altogether, Detroit’s first WNBA Finals series loss. After 13 months, the sting of those memories has finally been soothed.
“You just don’t want to take anything for granted. We’ve had injuries in the last minute of ball games, we’ve had it come down to a last-second shot and you don’t want to leave it to that margin of error,” Smith said. “We wanted to come out and play. We felt like today was a Game 5.”
Instead, it was the Silver Stars who caved, playing panicked basketball in the fourth quarter, shooting only 6-for-19 in the quarter. Many of those misses led to rebounds that presented fast-break opportunities for Detroit, who literally ran away with the championship.
“We play together as a team,” said Deanna Nolan, who directed Detroit’s offense with 12 points and five assists. “We weren’t making shots but the energy and effort were there and it was just about making baskets down the stretch and that’s what we did.”
The Silver Stars did not lose a game against an Eastern Conference team all season – then lost three in a row to Detroit, the first two at home. “We were able to turn it up and we suspected that San Antonio couldn’t,” Laimbeer said. “I think that was the key to our success, is we took our game to another level in The Finals and I think they had continued to play at the same pace that they had before.”
Only weeks shy of her 38th birthday, Taj McWilliams-Franklin finally captured an elusive championship ring in her 10th WNBA season and third Finals appearance. She saved the Shock’s season with her seamless arrival in the wake of Cheryl Ford’s season-ending injury, providing not only an interior presence on the court but a calming leadership presence in the locker room.
“The will to win on this team is unmatched - I've never seen anything like it,” said McWilliams-Franklin, who began this season on last-place Washington after playing for last-place Los Angeles in 2007. “Winning games is what this group lives for.”
Plenette Pierson played 11 minutes in Game 3 despite a right shoulder injury that would have sidelined her for a good 10 days in the regular season. She scored twice at the end of the first quarter to spark a sluggish Detroit offense and again in the fourth.
Kara Braxton was supposedly too inconsistent. But Detroit’s starting center thoroughly outplayed her predecessor in the pivot, 2003 Finals MVP Ruth Riley, who scored two points each in games 2 and 3 for San Antonio. Braxton scored 10 and 12 points in the first two games, then capped her series with a nine-point, nine-rebound performance in Game 3. Often derided by Laimbeer for letting early fouls and missed shots sidetrack her game, Braxton battled back after shooting 0-for-6 in the first quarter.
As for Alexis Hornbuckle – who knows what her fault was this season that kept her off the All-Rookie Team. She’ll just have to settle for the distinction of becoming the first player to win both an NCAA and WNBA championship in the same year. The WNBA regular-season steals leader earned it the hard way, mixing it up on defense and grabbing nine rebounds to go with nine points and five assists in the title-clinching performance.
“For her not to make the all-rookie team as a leader in steals throughout the year, we don’t understand,” Laimbeer said. “However, we do understand that at the end of the season, we hold that trophy up and that’s the motivating factor for all of us. I think we indoctrinated Hornbuckle great this year on what it’s like to be a Shock.”
What it’s like? It’s about sacrificing individual honors for the ultimate glory, deferring the individual praise should you be graced by it. “The MVP goes to all of us,” Smith said. “Taj, the reason why we are here is her. She gave us huge minutes and with Plenette being out, that was big. It’s fun to play here in Detroit and fun to play with these guys, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
With the maturity of Braxton and Hornbuckle, the renewed health of Pierson and Ford and the continued excellence of Nolan, Smith and McWilliams-Franklin, a bright future shines through the Shock’s championship window. The WNBA title took a one-year hiatus from the Motor City. As far as they’re concerned, that was long enough.
“We’re planning to be here every year,” Nolan said. “Until someone can knock us out or beat us, we’re going to be here every year.”