Shock must win at San Antonio

Shock and Stars Collide

The Shock have reached their fourth WNBA Finals, where they’ll face their fourth different Western Conference opponent. This time it’s the San Antonio Silver Stars.

In a twist from prior Finals appearances, Detroit does not have the home-court advantage. The series will open with Game 1 Wednesday at the AT&T Center in San Antonio.

“We anticipate going into the hornet’s nest,” Shock head coach Bill Laimbeer said. “We know they’re going to be geeked; this is their first time. But don’t look past us because we’ve been there and done that.”

The Shock lost in the finals for the first time last year after come-from-behind series wins in 2003 and 2006. The sting of losing to the Phoenix Mercury - who became the first WNBA champion to clinch on an opponent’s floor when they ran away with Game 5 at The Palace - has the Shock taking nothing for granted.

“This year we’re not the defending champs,” Katie Smith said. “We’re going in there; we don’t have home-court advantage. We’re probably the underdog. You know what, let’s go play.”

While it’s the Finals debut for the San Antonio franchise, several Silver Stars have reached the championship series. Starting guards Becky Hammon and Vickie Johnson guided New York to the 2002 finals; forward Erin Buescher won a championship in 2005 and reached the finals again in 2006 with Sacramento.

And then there’s center Ruth Riley, who was instrumental to Detroit’s worst-to-first turnaround in 2003, taking Finals MVP honors. She also started for the Shock’s ’06 title team before being traded to San Antonio, where her winning ways rubbed off on her new team. Like Detroit, the Silver Stars had their 2007 season cut short by the Mercury’s championship march.

“They played all year long with a chip on their shoulder to get the home-court advantage,” Laimbeer said of the Silver Stars, who won a league-best 24 games.

Laimbeer, who has amassed the most wins in WNBA postseason history, has always embraced the underdog role. He won’t have any problem building up the “us-against-everybody” angle as his team goes on the road for the first two games, in addition to a potential winner-take-all Game 5.

“We’re a very confident road team,” said Laimbeer, whose team won at Indiana to open the first round. “While our record this year might have been a losing record [8-9 in the regular season]… you look at the demeanor and the concentration of our players, and that’s what wins on the road.”

The Shock lost both meetings with the Silver Stars this season. The Silver Stars won an overtime thriller at home and then cruised against a depleted Detroit squad that had only nine active players. Not much can be gleaned from those contests because six-time All-Star Taj McWIlliams-Franklin had not yet joined the Shock, who are 10-3 since her August arrival.

“I think they hold the record on us in the regular season, but again it’s the finals,” McWilliams-Franklin said. “And we’re going to put everything we have into stopping them just like they’re going to try to stop us.”

The 6-foot-2 forward plays a role similar to the one Antonio McDyess has in recent seasons the Detroit Pistons. She is an elite defender and rugged interior scorer. She also doesn’t need to be reminded she’s the only Detroit starter not to have a ring. Her quest is a cause picked up by all in the Shock locker room.

“As you get older, you realize you don’t have that many opportunities to be in the finals,” said McWilliams-Franklin, who turns 38 in October. She has played 10 WNBA seasons but fallen short of a title, coming close in two finals appearances with Connecticut.

It’s a race against time for both McWilliams-Franklin and the Shock, who want to prove last year’s finals defeat wasn’t an indication that the championship window is closing. Rather than rush through it, the Shock are cherishing their third consecutive Finals appearance as if it were the first.

“It’s just more in the here and now. You don’t know when you’re going to get this opportunity again,” Smith said. “You might not be with this exact personnel, playing with Taj, playing with Tweety (Deanna Nolan). It’s just enjoying it and leaving it out there and see what happens.”