PHOENIX, Sept. 13, 2007 -- After a narrow defeat at home on Tuesday in Game 3, the Phoenix Mercury returned the favor to the Shock tonight in Game 4, eking out a 77-76 victory on their home court to thwart Detroit's attempt to become the first team to ever clinch a WNBA title on the road.
Cappie Pondexter led all scorers with 26 on the night, including two monster
hoops in the game's final minute, the latter of which ended up proving to be
the game-winner. The series now shifts back to Detroit for a deciding Game 5
on Sunday. But before we leave town, let's get some expert analysis on what
happened tonight and what will happen as the Finals return to the Motor City.
What happened: What amazes me most about what Cappie was able to do down the stretch tonight is that she did it against one of the best defensive players in the league. Deanna Nolan blocks a couple of her shots, makes it really hard for Cappie to get any space and score, but Cappie imposed her will on the game. She was determined to carry this team to a win. She did that at Rutgers too: She would take the team on her back and win games all by herself. Tonight when they needed her to make plays, she did so. Even after getting her shot blocked, she never backed down. She was just relentless.
Phoenix stayed competitive on the glass, they got more second-chance points and they took advantage of their fast-break opportunities when they could. But tonight, for me, was more about a young team with limited Finals experience showing great toughness. It wasn't so much about shooting or rebounding. It was about heart, toughness and will. They had to win this one or go home and they did it.
What's next: Bill Laimbeer has beaten the drum since training camp: "We need home-court advantage." The league is more competitive, it's more evenly matched than ever. So we need that home court. And his players took that to heart. They go home now with a chance for their third title in five years. They have all of that experience, they have as much toughness as anybody in this league and I like their chances at home.
What happened: Phoenix wasn't playing their game for so much of tonight's game. The turning point came tonight in the fourth quarter, when Detroit started seeing the backs of the Phoenix jerseys. The Mercury got some steals, they got out in transition and those translated into baskets. Cappie started taking the ball hard to the basket. And between Cappie, Diana and Kelly Miller, they were able to make up for the fact that Penny Taylor and Tangela Smith were a combined 2-21 from the field.
Plenette Pierson was unbelievable tonight in a losing effort. If it had ended tonight, she was my pick for MVP. She has talent and so much confidence right now. And yes, the fans were booing her tonight and it's tough sometimes when someone who is traded comes back, but she's a pro and she does what she has to do.
Coaches always say, "We've gotta have one stop!" which I've always
thought was a little weird. But by forcing Tweety Nolan to dish the ball to
Shannon Johnson for that final shot -- Pee Wee was the one player on the Shock
that the Mercury actually wanted taking that last shot -- the Mercury
did it with their defense! When did you ever think I'd say that?! But that speaks
volumes about how they've developed and grown as a team.
What's next: There are two X-factors for Sunday. The first is how Cheryl Ford's knee is. The second is ice. Who responds to ice? After terrific games tonight, you know both Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith are going to come to play again back in front of their home crowd. And if Game 5 is anything like tonight, wow, what a great series for women's basketball.
What happened: Sometimes games come down to a crucial spurt or play. Katie Smith and Deanna Nolan both hit some huge shots at different points tonight, but it was Cappie Pondexter who at the end decided that she had to take control of this game. "No one on the floor can guard me one on one." Once she realized that, Phoenix got much more relaxed. Up until that point, though, Phoenix had too many people involved in the offense trying to win the game. But they got some crucial stops on the defensive end, Diana hit a big three and Cappie made big play after big play.
But Phoenix did what it had to do today playing in front of its home crowd
and with all of the emotion in this building. Detroit is already a great team,
they've already proven that they're a champion, but Phoenix played tonight like
a team that wants to be great.
What's next: I heard Doris mention that Bill Laimbeer told her that home-court advantage is so important in the WNBA because most of the teams are so close in terms of talent and personnel, that playing in front of your home crowd can give you that extra boost. Obviously, you want every little edge you can get.
But also, Detroit plays its best basketball when you think they don't have
anything left. Is Cheryl Ford healthy? How much will she be able to give them?
That will play a big role. Either way, though, it's been an incredible series
to this point and I wouldn't expect anything less on Sunday in Game 5.
What happened: The first half was a slugfest and the second half was
a back-and-forth battle. Unbelievable. It was just a fantastic game that makes
you want more. The second half was full of just so much good basketball…
The Mercury didn't adjust their game plan at all and they kept everyone involved
despite some off nights. But they hit big shots when they needed to. Cappie
Pondexter was the difference-maker in the second half.
What's next: Detroit played hard tonight and gave it a great effort. But Detroit always plays its best when its back is up against a wall. There will be a great crowd on Sunday, and they're going to come out trying to win this thing. I think it will come down to the side that can dictate the tempo on Sunday. The injury to Cheryl Ford will also play a big role. Home-court advantage has been so important throughout the playoffs, though maybe less so in this series, but I still think Detroit will have an edge in Game 5. But it will be a great, great game.
What happened: Tonight came down to Phoenix's will to win. Diana said that she e-mailed Cappie during the off day telling her that they needed to will the Mercury to a win tonight, and it's no coincidence that that's exactly what happened. You expect Diana Taurasi to take over for Phoenix in the final minute, but it's Cappie who puts them up. Then Nolan puts Detroit back up. Then Cappie again… wow. Just two incredible basketball games here in Phoenix. I hope Game 5 can live up to it.
What's next: The Mercury were right there in a hotly contested Game 1 when both Cappie and Diana had rough nights. So I'm not counting Phoenix out. It's strange to me that Phoenix shot so poorly over the last two games here at home. Their three-point shooting numbers were miserable. But on the road for Game 5, I think they will be very focused and might benefit from that "us against the world" mentality. That and their shooting just has to get better. It's that cosmic, mystical law of averages: shooters this talented can't be that bad three games in a row.
Detroit is an up-and-down team. They like to bounce back from games like this.
They're like a roller-coaster. I asked Kara Braxton after the game what she
thinks will happen in Game 5 and she told me, "You know the deal, we're
an every-other-game team." After a tough loss like this tonight, you can
definitely expect them to come back hard in the next game. They're going to
be home, they're the defending champs and they're looking for a repeat. I think
the Shock have the edge.
What happened: Phoenix didn't shoot very well again tonight. But they played through it, got some stops when they needed and hit some huge shots when they needed them. What's amazing to me is how competitive it is out there. It's been emotional, heated and competitive all series long and that will be taken to a new level on Sunday, I'm sure.
What's next: Looking ahead to Game 5, I don't think the Mercury are worried about what the Shock are going to do, and I think the opposite is true, too. These teams aren't focused on what their opponent is going to do. They're both paying closer attention to what they themselves are going to do and improve on for Sunday.
The Shock obviously have an advantage going home for the deciding game. Playing in front of your home crowd always helps.
But, like I said, the Mercury haven't shot well in two straight games. And when you're a shooting team like they are, you're going to shoot through it. And after two off nights, I think the odds are in their favor that they'll come out of it on Sunday.