|Shock coach Bill Laimbeer knows that another WNBA title will quiet any concerns about his team's lack of focus or motivation.|
|Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images|
|"Those of you who follow the Detroit Shock know
that we have our moments like this. And this was definitely one of those.
We have been there before, done that in the Finals. It's unfortunate, it
drives us crazy sometimes. We have been here before. … I guess sometimes
… we don't handle prosperity very well. That's been our MO. And I
can tell you today was a classic example of that."
-Detroit Shock coach Bill Laimbeer after his team's 98-70 loss in Game 2 of the WNBA Finals
PHOENIX, Sept. 13 -- The ability to turn it on and off when you want may be something we take for granted in our car or our kitchen appliances, but it's a rarity in sports. Yes, the world's finest athletes are often renowned for being able to perform in the clutch -- Tiger Woods sinking a long putt on 18, David Ortiz homering in the bottom of the ninth, John Elway leading a last-minute drive down the field.
But while stars of this magnitude may be immortalized for performing well at crunch time, their careers are, for the most part, models of consistency. They perform well whether it's a relatively meaningless midseason game or a postseason trophy is on the line.
So how do we classify the defending WNBA champion Detroit Shock? They were the league's best regular season team, claiming home-court advantage throughout the playoffs with nearly two weeks still to play. They've won two titles in the last four seasons and sit a single win -- one they can earn tonight in Game 4 against the Mercury in Phoenix -- from a third. When the Shock are firing on all cylinders, most experts agree that there's no team in the world capable of beating them.
But there are times when their opponents don't need to beat them. The Shock handle that on their own. Critics accuse them of "not showing up," "not coming to play" or "not bringing their A game."
Exhibit A: After clinching home-court on August 11, the Shock lost their final four (mostly meaningless) games of the regular season.
Exhibit B: The Shock lost their first game in the first round against the New York Liberty -- their fifth straight defeat -- before winning back-to-back elimination games at home to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Exhibit C: The Shock lost their first game in the Eastern Finals to the Indiana Fever before winning back-to-back elimination games at home to advance to the WNBA Finals.
Exhibit D: After topping the Mercury in Game 1 of the Finals, the Shock lost Game 2 -- the game that conjured up coach Bill Laimbeer's aforementioned tirade -- in embarrassing fashion at The Palace. But the Shock rebounded Tuesday in Game 3 in Phoenix to reclaim home-court and move within a win of a third crown in four seasons.
These examples seem to suggest that when their backs are against the wall, there's nobody better. But they also suggest a lack of consistency, a lack of intensity, a contentedness in bringing only their B or C games in less-than-pivotal contests.
"That is probably correct," says Laimbeer.
"It's the truth. Everyone's seen it!" agrees All-Star guard Deanna Nolan. "When our backs are against the wall or when we feel like we need to redeem ourselves, like after Game 2, we really come out and play."
But how can a team obviously as talented as Detroit simply not show up with the same passion and intensity every day?
"I really can't tell you," says forward Plenette Pierson. "This team just likes adversity. We bring our game to a whole new level when there's adversity on the line.
"I don't think we turn it on and off," says veteran Katie Smith before pausing to carefully choose her words, "but there are certain times I feel like there's more we should be getting out of us. There's more we should be doing."
So after a hard-fought victory in Game 3 here in Phoenix, is Game 4 the night for another letdown, another lackadaisical effort?
"As a coach, you always worry about everything," says Laimbeer. "With our history of being up and down with our focus, you still have a concern, but so far I haven't seen any complacency at all."
"We don't feel any pressure," says Nolan, "because we'd come back home for Game 5."
Wait a second. Feeling like Game 4 doesn't really matter because there will always be Game 5 at home to fall back on? Isn't that the definition of complacency?
Not exactly, says veteran forward Swin Cash.
"If we have to go back to Detroit, OK, we have that to fall back on, but we're focused on winning (tonight). We've always been our best when a championship is on the line."
Laimbeer agrees that despite the Shock's current edge in the series, Game 4 is no time for an off night.
|“I don’t think our backs aren’t necessarily up against the wall,” says Plenette Pierson. “We can’t have any letdowns against them or else they’ll take the game and run with it.”|
|Domenic Centofanti/Getty Images|
"I don't think our backs aren't necessarily up against the wall," Pierson reasons. "You give a team like Phoenix enough confidence to win a Game 4, then they come back into your place and anything can happen. Our backs are against the wall and we have to come out focused. We can't have any letdowns against them or else they'll take the game and run with it."
Smith knows that the Mercury will come to play in Game 4 in front of their home crowd, especially with the odd win-or-stay-home situation staring them in the face.
"Their backs are against the wall," says the Detroit guard. "That's the position they're in. We've been there. We were there last year. And you have nothing to lose. They'll have the crowd behind them and you know the effort and energy will be there. I expect them to give us everything they have."
With Phoenix firmly focused on its own preparations for Game 4, coach Paul Westhead was asked how he feels about Detroit's tendency to turn it off following big wins.
"I'm hoping right now that I get a chance to see that in action," he says with a laugh.
After claiming Game 3, from where do the Shock draw their motivation heading into what has become a less-than-crucial Game 4?
"There may be less pressure on us tonight," Nolan consents, "but we still want to close it out. No WNBA team has ever won a championship on the road, and that's something we want to do."
"This is an elimination game where we can knock somebody out and claim the trophy," Laimbeer agrees, "and that's what we're playing for."
Despite the platitudes suggesting Game 4 is a must-win for the Shock, Laimbeer readily admits that his team "has its moments." So what pregame words of wisdom will he summon up to will him team into avoiding another letdown?
"I don't have to tell them anything. They know what their task is now. They know where they're at."
But the question remains: If the Shock do have some remarkable ability to turn their game on and off when it suits them, is that the sign of a team lacking intensity or character or a sign of true dominance?
Pierson says that the proof is in the pudding.
"I think we just have to let everything off the court go… and just play. Ultimately, it's going to come down to which team makes the bigger stop on defense or who scores the bigger basket."
And if the Shock win either Game 4 or 5 over the next few days, no one will question the team's approach. It seems silly to worry about "not coming to play every day" when you're carrying around three championship trophies.