Despite suspensions, Cheryl Ford's season-ending injury and a series of personnel moves that reshaped both the bench and starting lineup, the Shock clinched the third regular-season conference title in franchise history Tuesday night.
With a 78-66 home victory over the Mystics coupled with San Antonio's fourth-quarter rally past Connecticut, the Shock locked up the No. 1 playoff seed in the East, meaning home-court advantage through the conference finals. Even if the Shock (21-12) lose at New York in the regular-season finale Sunday and Connecticut (20-13) defeats Washington Saturday, Detroit wins the tiebreaker by virtue of winning two of three head-to-head meetings.
That sets up a first-round playoff matchup against the Indiana Fever, the third consecutive postseason the two rivals faced off. Detroit won both previous meetings, in the 2006 first round and 2007 conference finals. The 2008 series will tip off at Indiana Thursday or Friday.
Thursday's drama didn't last long, as the Mystics handed over an early 8-2 lead with turnovers. Detroit employed some full-court pressure, resulting in a turnover and a go-ahead 3-pointer by Deanna Nolan, 11-10. Nolan had a team-high 17 points on 7-of-14 shooting. Plenette Pierson's jumper beat the first-quarter buzzer to give the Shock a 19-18 lead and they never trailed again. Pierson had 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting.
Detroit's other double-digit scorer was center Kara Braxton, who scored twice on assists from Sheri Sam midway through the second quarter to bump Detroit's lead to 35-22. Braxton scored seven of her 13 first-half points at the foul line (7-10 FTs) to lead Detroit. She finished with 15 points and seven rebounds.
Neither team played sharply after halftime as Detroit pushed its lead to a game-high 17 entering the fourth quarter, 59-42. "I thought the first half we played OK and the second half we lost interest," head coach Bill Laimbeer said.
The most tenuous moment for Shock fans Thursday came at the beginning of the third quarter when the former Shock forward and current Mystic Tasha Humphrey crumpled to the floor after the 6-foot-4 Braxton rolled into her leg. She left the court carried by two team members but returned at the end of the quarter, and even shot 3-for-4 for seven points in the fourth. Her 15-footer with 1:11 left was the only time in second half that Washington trailed by single digits, 73-64.
"It was good to be back in Detroit," Humphrey said. "The crowd was very welcoming. It was good to see all my old coaches and teammates again." The rookie forward who had shown great promise as a part of Laimbeer's starting lineup in the first half of the season was dealt to Washington for veteran Taj McWilliams-Franklin Aug. 12.
"Tasha is a good player. She has so much range and I wish her all the best, but right now I couldn't rely on many rookies to try to compete for a championship this year," Laimbeer said. "The trade was very difficult and my job as a coach is to protect opportunities to win championships and that's what I did."
Humphrey finished with 12 points and a team-high nine rebounds. Alana Beard and Monique Currie each scored 16 points to lead the Mystics (10-22).
With the East in hand, Laimbeer would like to improve Detroit's chances of home-court advantage in the WNBA Finals with a 22nd win at New York Sunday. They won't be able to catch 23-win San Antonio, which won both meetings against the Shock, but another victory would give the Shock a leg up on the rest of the West - including the Sparks.
"If we do happen to [win] the East, there's still Los Angeles. If we win, we're one game ahead of them for the best record if we meet them in the finals," Laimbeer said. "On the Eastern Conference there's nothing really to play for, but L.A.'s what we're eyeing."
That's why despite his track record of resting players once the conference title is clinched, Laimbeer said, "My suspicion is we're going to give it our best shot, see how it goes and play the game from there" against New York.
The Shock won a team-record 25 games in 2003 and 24 games in 2007 to win the regular-season conference title. They also had a 23-win campaign in 2006.