Star-studded perimeter could determine Shock-Fever series

Preview by Position

The top-seed Detroit Shock enter the 2008 playoffs seeking their third consecutive WNBA Finals appearance. The Fever are after something a little more personal - their first postseason series win over the Shock after losing to Detroit in ’06 and ’07.

That makes Indiana a dangerous first-round opponent, far more menacing than their 17-17 regular season or five consecutive losses to the Shock suggests. “Their record doesn’t really show how great of a team they are, so you can’t look at the record,” guard Deanna Nolan said. “We know what they can do, how they can exploit us. It’s just a matter of if they know that.”

In the first part of our positional breakdown, we look at how the Shock and Fever size up on the perimeter, where some of the playoff’s biggest stars reside.

Point guard: Elaine Powell vs. Tully Bevilaqua

Surrounded by potent scorers, Powell is a steady ball handler who helps Detroit avoid early turnovers. Laimbeer has confidence in the nine-year veteran and might trust her with more than her usual 20 minutes if backup Alexis Hornbuckle shows any rookie nerves in her first postseason.

“My X-factor? EP, Elaine Powell. She is a warrior,” said ESPN commentator Nancy Lieberman, who resumed her Hall of Fame career with the Shock for one game July 24. “She has stepped in now to the starting lineup so it takes some of the pressure off Katie (Smith) to bring the ball up.”

Powell is starting again after missing half the season with a foot injury, but she has not picked up where she left off. She was averaging 5.0 points before her June 11 foot injury, her highest average in three seasons. Powell has just one field goal in the last five games, shooting a total of seven times.

Bevilaqua, like Powell, averages 2.2 assists and only 1.1 turnovers per game, a respectable assist-to-turnover ratio. The Australian Olympian is also one of the league’s top ball thefts, averaging nearly two steals per game. Her most evident weakness against the Shock appears to be shooting. She shot 30 percent from the field against Detroit, in part because she relies on the 3-ball. Thirteen of her 20 field-goal attempts came from beyond the arc, where she connected just twice.

Shooting Guard: Deanna Nolan vs. Katie Douglas

As far as individual matchups go, you won’t find one better than this showdown between 2007 All-WNBA First Teamers. Even Nolan’s looking forward to it. “I think it’s going to be a great matchup, chasing her around so to speak and her doing the same for me if we’re guarding each other,” she said. “It’s one of those matchups that you don’t think about how tired you are, it’s a matter of wills.”

Nolan torched the Fever in last year’s conference finals, scoring 24 points in the Game 2 win and a franchise playoff record 30 in the deciding Game 3. This season, Nolan’s flawless 6-for-6, 15-point second quarter on Sept. 5 extended Detroit’s winning streak over Indiana to five games.

The Fever acquired Douglas in the off-season not for her defense, but to spark an offense that ranked next to last in the league in 2007. She responded with a team-high 15.6 points per game, but reached double figures against Detroit just once, for 26 points the first week of the season.

“Make sure you limit her touches and you’re just always in her space,” is how Nolan described Detroit’s defensive approach, “letting her know somebody’s always there, that it’s not going to be easy for her to get a shot off or drive to the basket.”

Douglas, who led the Sun in scoring last season but not once in four contests against Detroit, apparently brought some baggage with her from Connecticut: Douglas is 1-12 against the Shock since the start of 2007.

Small Forward: Katie Smith vs. Tamika Catchings

What if?

That’s all Fever fans could wonder after Catchings suddenly dropped to the floor with a torn Achilles tendon in Game 3 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals. In the first quarter Indiana led by 13 points. Without the All-Star forward in the second half, the Fever floundered and Detroit breezed to a 16-point victory.

Catchings returned this season after the Fever jumped out to a 5-3 start, but two of those losses came to Detroit. In her lone appearance against the Shock Sept. 5, Catchings looked like the All-Star of old, posting 20 points and 10 rebounds. Twice knocked out of the decisive game of a playoff series against the Shock - she had a concussion in 2006 - Catchings will be eager to write an ending of her own choosing.

“I think you’re going to see her even more (aggressive), looking to score more,” Nolan said. “Just the little things, back to the old Catchings.”

Laimbeer defended her Sept. 5 with forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who at 37 years old is one of the league’s smartest help defenders. She won’t handle the duty alone. “Everybody will play Catchings, be aware of where she’s at,” Shock head coach Bill Laimbeer said. “We’ll have multiple people guarding her.”

Catchings, arguably the greatest on-ball defender in league history, will definitely limit the number of open looks Smith gets around the 3-point arc. Nearly half (45.6 percent) of Smith’s points this season came via the triple.

Smith, who became the third member of the WNBA’s 5,000-point club this season, will find a way to make the offense work anyway. She set or tied the team high for assists in all three conference final games last season, averaging 5.6 dimes. This season, she averaged 4.0 assists for the first time in 10th WNBA seasons.

Coming Wednesday: The starting frontcourt matchups and how the Detroit and Indiana benches stack up against each other.