Detroit center Kara Braxton is one of the players that will need to step up in Game 5 if Cheryl Ford is unable to play.
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Auburn Hills, MI, Sept. 15 -- As expected, the prospect of Detroit forward Cheryl Ford playing in Sunday’s winner-take-all battle with the Phoenix Mercury isn’t promising. She spent Saturday’s practice and media session at the Palace of Auburn Hills sitting on the scorer’s table with her left leg elevated and her knee covered in ice.
“We have 24 hours, and unless (trainer) Laura (Ramus) can work her magic, I don’t think (I’ll be playing in Game 5),” said a visibly disappointed Ford. “I told Laura that if I am walking without a limp tomorrow, then I am playing. We’ll see what happens.”
Ford had already been hampered by her left knee prior to aggravating the injury in Game 4 when teammate Deanna Nolan landed on Ford’s calf while going for a block, causing the knee to buckle. She had to be helped off the court.
“We’re not sure if she’s going to suit up or not, but we’re very pessimistic,” said Detroit head coach Bill Laimbeer, who added that it’s essentially up to Ford and how she’s feeling on Sunday.
Ford stated that if she isn’t able to go, she’s confident the team’s bigs will play well in her absence.
“They got it. I ain’t worried about it,” said Ford. “I know that they are going to come in and play hard and do what they can to help us win. This is the last game, so I know that they are going to play hard.”
“Of course, everybody has to step up,” said center Kara Braxton. “It’s damn near been a man down all season with one person or another person. But everybody knows we have to step up. We have big shoes to fill, but we’ve done it before. We’re not hanging our heads down – we know what we’ve got to do.”
And the area the Shock need to pick up the slack the most is clear to the players.
“With her going out and getting double-digit rebounds every game, we’re going to miss that," said Nolan. "We’re going to need all five people to go out and hit the glass hard now.”
Laimbeer is uncertain as to who would potentially replace Ford in the starting lineup. Although he did rule out Plenette Pierson, who’s having a monster Finals with averages of 16.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game while shooting 54 percent.
Pierson has put up those numbers all while coming off the bench, and Laimbeer doesn’t plan to stray from what’s working.
“We need that energy. We need that person who’s going to be able to come in and provide scoring, defense, rebounding and not get in early foul trouble,” said Laimbeer. “That’s what we count on her for. We expect her to play the same way she’s been playing.”
Taking part at practice for the first time all Finals was the recently activated Tausha Mills, a 6-3 center who gives Detroit a little more depth up front should Ford not play.
Mills, playing her fifth WNBA season, but first since 2003 when she was with San Antonio, was last on the court for Detroit for the final game of the regular season. She actually played in five of the final six games of the regular season – starting one – after signing with the team on August 9 and averaged 3.0 points and 3.6 rebounds in 10.2 minutes.
Laimbeer said whether or not Mills sees time will depend on Ford’s availability.
Ford is officially listed as doubtful for Game 5, and oddly enough so is Nolan with a hyper-extended left knee. In fact, the Shock’s official game notes have Nolan out of the projected starting lineup.
Nolan said she suffered the injury somewhere in the final four minutes of Game 4, but doesn’t remember exactly when or how it happened. She added that she first felt the pain after a shot, and admitted that her knee is still sore.
“It’s a little achy here and there, depending on the movement,” said Nolan. “I’ll just give it another day and see how it is.”
Obviously, the pain wasn’t enough to keep her out of the game then, as she played until the final buzzer, and it doesn’t appear it’ll prevent her from going in Game 5 as well.
“If it was Game 1, maybe (she wouldn’t play), but this is Game 5,” said Laimbeer. “She’s going to play. There’s no question about that. How good she’ll be, we’ll see.”
The big issue with Nolan might not be if she can contribute offensively on that knee, but whether she can stay with Cappie Pondexter – the star of Phoenix’s Game 4 win. Pondexter, Nolan’s defensive assignment throughout the series, scored 20 of her game-high 26 points in the second half of Thursday’s game and hit a string of clutch baskets down the stretch, including the game-winner with 21 seconds to go.
“I won’t have a problem,” said Nolan about keeping up with Pondexter with an injured knee. “That’s why we play team defense. Now we have to give her a little bit more space and make her shoot longer jump shots.”
Best Finals Ever?
Detroit and Phoenix have put together quite an entertaining Finals to this point. Some are arguing it might be the best ever. Laimbeer, taking part in his third WNBA championship round, isn’t so sure.
“LA and us was a pretty good matchup,” said Laimbeer. “I think that’s the barometer. Yeah, it was a best-of-three, but so far I think that’s been the best. It was two teams really slugging it out, especially in this building.”
– By Mark Bodenrader, WNBA.com
Mercury Practice Notes
Auburn Hills, MI, Sept. 15 – It’s the biggest game of your career … but don’t be nervous.
That is the line that head coach Paul Westhead has to walk with his Phoenix Mercury players as they head into the winner-takes-all Game 5 of the WNBA Finals tomorrow night.
“We try to make this as much like a normal game as possible,” Westhead said. “Nice and easy does it; nothing different; stay with your routine; low key everything. You can’t talk about it, so if you demonstrate normalcy, it might help them.”
As normal as Westhead tries to make this game seem, the players know what is on the line Sunday night.
“We sort of look at it as it’s just a game, but we know there’s a lot at stake,” said Kelly Miller. “It is something that we have worked hard for all season. It is something that you dream about.”
Miller said she has played in championship games in AAU basketball as well as in the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament while she was at Georgia. Her Lady Bulldogs advanced to the Final Four in 1999, but she says it does not compare to Game 5 of the WNBA Finals.
“This is definitely the biggest game I’ve been involved with,” she said. “You play you’re whole career for this, so it’s exciting. It’s been a great ride.”
Teammate Cappie Pondexter also had an excellent college career, but she never won a title during her years at Rutgers.
“It would mean the world,” she said about winning the WNBA title. “It is something that I have been working to get for my whole basketball career. It would be the first one, so it would mean a lot.”
While Pondexter and Miller never tasted a collegiate championship, teammate Diana Taurasi won three titles at the University of Connecticut and says she is calling on that experience now.
“Games like this are tricky. It’s just another game, but the stakes are higher,” she said. “In games like this, I think teams that settle down and don’t think they have to do more to, win. We just have to go out there and play good basketball like we have for the last month and a half. We don’t need any Superman hero performances from anyone, we just have to go out there and take care of that task, which we’ve been doing.”
Penny Taylor is another seasoned veteran in championship games as a member of the Australian national team. In 2006, Taylor was named Most Valuable player at the FIBA World Championships in Brazil, where she led Australia to the gold medal.
“We have many people that have played a lot of important games in their careers and people that love to win,” she said. “The hunger to win is what is more important at this stage.”
In his effort to keep things as normal as possible, Westhead is not planning a huge inspirational pre-game speech for tomorrow night.
“We already had it,” he said. “There’s no talk at this point. Just show up and play.”
Taurasi said at this point the Mercury players are motivating themselves and don’t need Westhead to break character.
“Our coach isn’t a Vince Lombardi, hoorah, let’s go get them, play their hearts out kind of guy,” she said. “He’s like ‘It's basketball, it's something that you love to do and something that I love to coach, so let’s go out there and play.’”
“I don’t think he needs to motivate us,” added Taylor. “We’ve never had a problem with motivation, especially not now when the championship is on the line.”
Frontcourt Shooting Woes
Phoenix won Game 4 despite getting very little from frontcourt players Taylor and Tangela Smith, who combined to shoot 2-of-21 in the game and scored six points apiece.
“It’s pretty simple – it’s just one game, and you forget about it,” said Taylor, who shot 1-of-11, but grabbed a team-high nine rebounds. “I have a bit of experience and I know that the only way to get out of it is to get out there and shoot the ball again – it never lasts.”
When Taurasi was told that Taylor calls a bad game a “berry,” she offered another food comparison for her Australian teammate.
“We call that a doughnut here, Penny,” Taurasi said. “That can’t happen again. And if it does, we proved we can win. So I’m not worried about 2-for-20s or 1-for-14s, you’ve got to find a way to win. In games like this it’s all about finding a way to win.”
We Can Be Physical Too
The Mercury players have been asked countless times during the Finals about how physical this series with Detroit has been. Taurasi wanted to make sure her team got some credit for being a physical team as well as the Shock.
“People don’t ever talk about it, but we have physical players on our team,” she said. “I’m not one to shy away from contact, Penny Taylor is one who feeds off getting hit, Cappie is a bulldog. People keep thinking we’re soft. I don’t think we were ever soft. Just because we’re skilled means we’re soft? What’s that called, an oxymoron?
Cappie to the Rescue
In Phoenix’s Game 4 victory, Pondexter took over in the second half, scoring 20 of her 26 points, as the Mercury ran nearly every offensive possession through her.
“Superwoman took over,” Taurasi said. “Cappie at the end was just amazing and sometimes you do need an individual to put a team on their back and that’s what she did.”
While Taurasi hopes for a more balanced attack in Game 5, she knows there will be moments when someone will have to take over.
“Most likely Game 5 is not going to be a blowout on either side,” she said. “It’s going to be matching basket for basket, rebound for rebound. It may take Penny, myself, Cappie or Tan, someone is going to have to make a big play eventually in the game to break it open.”
– By Brian Martin, WNBA.com