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The two best teams in the Eastern Conference during the regular season will meet in the Conference Finals to decide the issue once and for all. The Detroit Shock and Indiana Fever got out to quick starts and distanced themselves from the pack before injuries to key stars brought them back to earth. But with everyone back and a trip to the Finals on the line, expect a physical, intense best-of-three series.
The defending WNBA champions picked up right where they left off last year and cruised to the best record in the WNBA in 2007. The Shock were so good, in fact, that they were able to relax in the last week of the season and give the reserves some more playing time. Detroit won its first seven games and were 24-6 before letting up a bit and coasting in the last week of the regular season. The Shock were once again led by the super backcourt duo of Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith, who combined to average more than 30 points per game. Nolan was the Most Valuable Player of last year's Finals, but Smith was also instrumental in the run to winning her first title. Both are capable of playing the point and shooting the lights out when they get hot.
Forward Swin Cash, who spent much of the past few seasons recovering from injuries, bounced back to average 11.1 ppg and 6.1 rpg. The team captain is a vocal leader and the glue that holds her star teammates together and even got to rest her legs during these past two weeks.
As good as the starters are, this may also be the deepest team in the WNBA. Reserve forward Plenette Pierson was named the league's Sixth Woman of the Year (11.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and both starting center Kara Braxton and 6-8 reserve center Katie Feenstra pose matchup problems for the opposition whenever they are in the game. Shannon Johnson and Elaine Powell have a great deal of WNBA experience to spell the guards.
The Fever were also cruising along for the first half of the season, challenging the Shock for the best overall record in the league and topping out at 16-4 at one point. Then Catchings went down with an injury. The loss of their MVP candidate sent the Fever into a three-week free-fall that they are only now beginning to recover from. Indiana lost six straight games but managed to right the ship a bit in the final two weeks of the season and ended up with 21 wins. But the momentum that the team had in the first half might just be back.
Catchings' return was the big question looming over their first-round series, but she returned in a mighty way. She played 46 minutes in the triple-overtime loss to the Sun in Game 1, then came back and had a double-double in Game 2 and then bested that with 30 points and 13 rebounds in the deciding Game 3 win.
The Fever would not be in the Conference Finals if not for the stellar play and shooting skills of starting two-guard Anna DeForge. The 2007 WNBA All-Star hit big shot after big shot in the first round and averaged 25 points per game in the series. Her scoring has provided the ideal complement for point guard Tully Bevilaqua's defensive-minded nature.
Free agent acquisition Tammy Sutton-Brown was hailed as the final piece of the puzzle when she signed with the Fever, and the center did not disappoint in the regular season, though her effectiveness was limited in the first round. In an All-Star season, she averaged 12.2 ppg and 5.5 rpg and took some of the pressure off of Catchings and forward Tamika Whitmore to do all of the battling down low. Whitmore was an All-Star in 2006 and scored a postseason-record 41 points in a playoff game last year against Detroit (with Catchings injured). She had 24 points coming off the bench in Game 3 against the Sun and was a significant part of the Fever making history. Their Game 3 win was the biggest comeback ever in the WNBA postseason.
Reserve guard Tan White provided a spark off the bench for the Fever during the regular season and even led the team in scoring on multiple occasions in the last month of the season. She is effective as the sixth woman for the Fever, but the Fever will need more out of its bench as well in the Conference Finals. Veteran forward Sheri Sam got the start for Indy in Game 3 and played big minutes. Despite suffering an injury against the Sun and missing Game 3, Ebony Hoffman is probable for Game 1 against the Shock.
The Fever have now won two postseason series in franchise history, a 2005 first-round win over New York, and the win over Connecticut in the first round here in 2007. If they can double that total and win two more series in 2007, they will win their first championship.
2007 Regular Season: Detroit Shock 2 - Indiana Fever 2
Some fast facts about the Shock-Fever Eastern Conference Finals matchup:
Eight different members of the Shock roster have led the
team in scoring this season: Deanna Nolan, Katie Smith, Plenette Pierson,
Cheryl Ford, Swin Cash, Shannon Johnson, Katie Feenstra and even rookie
Ivory Latta. Seven different players have been the leading rebounder as well.
The Indiana Fever were 16-5 in games played with Catchings this season but only 3-8 in games played without her.
In eight games as a starter this season, Fever guard Tan White averaged 13.5 ppg, but White was most valuable as a reserve sixth woman. On the season, she averaged 11.0 ppg.
The Shock were not the highest scoring team in the WNBA this season (they finished third), but their scoring margin differential was nearly five points per game, best in the league. That is more than 1.5 ppg better than the Mercury, who finished in second place. That statistic has proven to be one of the best indicators of postseason success.
Saturday, June 16, Palace of Auburn Hills, Detroit, MI: Fever
77, Shock 67 | Box
Indiana Leader: Tamika Catchings (26 pts., 14 reb.)
Detroit Leaders: Katie Feenstra (14 pts., 11 reb.), Deanna Nolan (14 pts.,)
NBA TV Highlights: Play | Webcast archive
Friday, July 20, Conseco Fieldhouse, Indianapolis IN: Shock
89, Fever 80 | Box
Detroit Leaders: Katie Smith (28 pts.), Cheryl Ford (9 pts., 11 reb.)
Indiana Leaders: Tammy Sutton-Brown (16 pts.), Tamika Catchings (12 pts., 8 reb.)
NBA TV Highlights: Play
Saturday, August 11, Palace of Auburn Hills, Detroit MI: Shock
74, Fever 69 | Box
Detroit Leader: Deanna Nolan (26 pts., 10 reb)
Indiana Leaders: Tan White (15 pts.), Anna DeForge (9 pts., 7 reb.)
NBA TV Highlights: Play
Sunday, August 19, Conseco Fieldhouse, Indianapolis IN: Fever
72, Shock 66 | Box
Detroit Leaders: Shannon Johnson (13 pts.), Plenette Pierson (13 pts.), Katie Feenstra (7 reb.)
Indiana Leaders: Tamika Whitmore (18 pts., 4 ast.), Anna DeForge (17 pts., 8 reb.)
NBA TV Highlights: Play | Webcast archive