Health of Smith, Holdsclaw looms large as playoffs begin

Missing in Action?

Katie Smith carried the Detroit Shock the first half of the season. Now she’s just trying to walk without pain.

Chamique Holdsclaw led the Atlanta Dream in scoring. Then she had arthroscopic knee surgery.

It’s hard to fathom a playoff series between the Shock and Dream without the leaders who did so much to shape their respective teams in 2009. But given their rather significant health issues since the end of August – Smith missed her first game with back pain Aug. 27; Holdsclaw was injured Aug. 20 and underwent surgery five days later – it could very well happen.

If one, or both, are unable to play in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at The Palace Wednesday… well, it might not change the series as much as you might think.

Both teams have shown resiliency in recent weeks, maintaining their identity without their veteran stars. That’s especially true in Detroit’s case. Smith’s absence has helped the Shock – who went 5-2 without her to close the regular season – reaffirm who they are.

“Katie Smith, the floor general, our captain on the floor, running stuff, 3-point threat out of this world, just for us, recovering from that is – was – I think, the moment where we actually started playing better as a team, because it was so devastating for us that we lost her,” said Taj McWilliams.

McCoughtry fills Atlanta’s void

You can still expect plenty of scoring: after the record-setting Phoenix Mercury, the Dream and Shock were the league’s top two scoring teams over the final 10 games of the regular season, both averaging 86 points a night.

Incredibly, the Dream accomplished it without Holdsclaw, who had been averaging a team-high 14.8 points until injuring her right knee in the first quarter against San Antonio.

Holdsclaw has had big moments against the Shock, beginning with a season-high 28 points on 10-of-15 shooting on June 26; the Dream exploited the Detroit defense for 96 points to win easily. A month later she had a season-high four steals and drained a crucial 3-pointer in overtime as the Dream escaped The Palace with a 98-95 win.

Holdsclaw’s tenuous status hasn’t been an issue for the Shock in their preparations, said Deanna Nolan, who believes the Shock have defeated themselves against Atlanta.

“I don’t think the game plan will change from the regular season because you see the big difference in the first three games we played them to now,” Nolan said. “We’re playing harder, we’re getting better on defense, so hopefully that carries over […] to this series.”

Nonetheless, the Shock’s only win against the Dream came Aug. 27, after Holdsclaw was sidelined. Without their clutch scorer, Atlanta made numerous miscues in the fourth quarter as the Shock prevailed, 87-83.

“We noticed the difference of them not knowing exactly who to go to for that basket, get a foul or something, but that’s something they have to play through,” Nolan said after the game. “Good on our part, bad on theirs.”

Since then, however, 2009 No. 1 overall pick Angel McCoughtry has seized that go-to role. The Rookie of the Year front-runner has averaged 16.2 points and shot 46.8 percent from the field in 10 starts, nine after Holdsclaw’s injury.

“Especially with Holdsclaw being out, she’s playing a lot more minutes and shown why she was the No. 1 pick,” Nolan said. “She can get out and go. She’s a big guard, she can post up, she can get in the passing lane, and she can score.”

In her only start against the Shock, McCoughtry scored 16 points but committed a season-high six turnovers and shot just 4-of-12 from the field.

”Knit together or fall apart”

The Shock have also continued to do what they do best. In some respects, they’ve actually gotten better.

One of the league’s worst 3-point shooting teams in June and July, the Shock connected on a league-best 42.1 percent from beyond the arc over their last 10 games. They did so despite seven straight without Smith, who, when she missed her first game Aug. 29, had accounted for over half of the team’s 3-pointers.

Deanna Nolan – the first three-time reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week – has led the perimeter resurgence. She’s averaging 20.7 points in September and made 14 triples in six games.

Nikki Teasley, who has started in Smith’s place, has added 10 triples in 11 games, and Shavonte Zellous has also taken advantage of extra minutes. Zellous is averaging 13.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 28.2 minutes, making September the most productive month of her rookie season.

“You either knit together or you fall apart and say, ‘OK we’re done with the season, we’re so sad, we lost Katie, now we can lose.’ I think this team pulled together and brought more pieces,” McWilliams said. “I think everybody just realized we’re going to do it or it’s not going to be done.”

While the Shock finished a league-best 8-2 over their last 10, the Dream were just 5-5, in part because they allowed nearly as many points as they scored (85.4 ppg). Despite averaging 9.7 steals per game, second most in the league, Atlanta’s defense has been porous overall.

Getting tougher defensively is one issue the Dream will have to address, whether Holdsclaw plays or not.