Plenette Pierson watches the final moments of Game 5 of the WNBA Finals against the Mercury.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
The team that entered the decisive Game 5 of the 2007 WNBA Finals with a 7-0 record in elimination games over the last two seasons, including a title-clinching win in Game 5 at home in the 2006 Finals against Sacramento, suffered a resounding loss to the Phoenix Mercury on Sunday to squash its bid for back-to-back titles. The team that prided itself on experience, grit and its ability to win at home at crucial times was beaten both mentally and physically on its own court by a squad new to the Finals scene.
“Well, this is an unfamiliar position, not being up here with a bottle of champagne,” said head coach Bill Laimbeer at the postgame press conference.
The Shock didn’t look familiar all night, outside of a slow start, which continued a postseason trend that finally caught up with them. Detroit fell behind 30-17 against the Mercury's offensive juggernaut -- a hole that proved too deep even for the savvy Shock to climb out of.
Three quarters later the WNBA had a new champion.
“We’ve bounced back from that before,” said forward Swin Cash about the double-digit deficit against Phoenix. "We didn’t get stops at different points in the game and that hurt us.”
The usually ferocious Detroit defense allowed Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor and Cappie Pondexter all to get off to hot starts and the Mercury drained 11-of-15 field goal attempts in the first quarter. Meanwhile, the Shock hit only 5-of-16 and committed seven turnovers.
But beyond the scoreboard it was painfully clear that Detroit’s offensive game plan was failing them early. Attempts to pound the ball into the zone to Cash, Katie Feenstra, Kara Braxton and Plenette Pierson proved futile as the swarming Mercury defense quickly collapsed on the bigs and forced bad shots.
“As soon as they put it down, they were getting double and triple teamed,” said Nolan. “So it was kind of hard for them to kick it back out to a guard to go and create or do something.”
Pierson, a candidate for Finals MVP entering the contest, had an especially rough night, scoring just four points on 2-of-6 shooting before fouling out. She also only pulled down four rebounds and committed four turnovers.
“We didn’t attack the rim,” said Laimbeer. “We settled for little turnaround jump shots. We didn’t convert when we did attack the rim. Overall, it wasn’t that they did anything different, it’s just that we didn’t do anything intense or aggressive on the inside. That was a big key going into this ballgame for us. We knew we had to go inside and get some easy baskets and get to the foul line. And that didn’t work.”
The struggles down low eventually found their way to the perimeter and the top-notch patience on offense that Detroit displayed in Games 3 and 4 was suddenly gone. Phoenix began dictating the pace, much like it did in its 98-70 Game 2 victory over Detroit, and lured the trailing Shock into an up-and-down affair.
The Shock never had the lead in the game and fell behind by as much as 20 on a few occasions. Katie Smith, Deanna Nolan and Shannon Johnson all hit timely shots to stave off some of the bigger Phoenix runs and keep the contest competitive. But the Mercury always seemed to have an answer and Detroit never managed to get any closer than 11 in the second half.
“They played better. I mean, flat out,” said Smith. “The energy and just a little pep in their step… They were making shots. They just were on it. They looked like they were just clicking.”
On top of its 52 percent shooting for the game, Phoenix drained all but one of its free throws (29-of-30). Taylor, who scored a game-high 30 points after being held in check in Game 4, was a perfect 18-of-18 from the charity stripe.
“We got beat by a team who was hungrier, playing at the top of their game,” said Laimbeer. “And we weren't.”
While lack of energy and execution ultimately dogged Detroit, it was hard to question the team’s toughness throughout the physical series, especially that of forward Cheryl Ford.
Many expected Ford to sit out Game 5 after aggravating her left knee injury at the end of Game 4. Instead, Ford surprised the raucous Palace crowd by suiting up Sunday and got a rise out of both her team and the fans when she entered play with seven minutes left in the first half.
“That she played today, was spectacular,” said Laimbeer. “I thought it gave our team a lift. And quite frankly, even though she's playing on one leg, I think she did just as well as the rest of our bigs. We didn't have a good day on the inside.
“Cheryl came, and went out there and did what she did and played through it. She's got the biggest heart in the world, and I give her a tremendous amount of credit. She can play on my team any day of the week.”
Despite the courageous effort to help out her teammates, Ford finished with only four points and two rebounds in 12 minutes and was also whistled for a technical foul in the second quarter as frustration began to mount.
Nolan also played through pain, starting despite suffering a hyper-extended left knee in Game 4. At one point during the second quarter she could even be seen wincing a bit after coming down on the knee on a jump shot.
However, Nolan went on to turn in arguably the best performance of any Shock player, scoring a team-high 27 points on 8-of-18 shooting from the field, including 3-of-6 from three-point range, and 8-of-9 from the free throw line.
Unfortunately, most of Nolan’s points came after Phoenix built up its big cushion. While Taurasi, Taylor and Pondexter were lighting up the scoreboard early for Phoenix, the 2006 Finals MVP was virtually non-existent. She went 0-for-3 in the first quarter and didn’t make her first field goal until converting on a four-point play two and a half minutes into the second.
“We wanted to go inside a little more in the first half. You know, start our presence inside,” said Nolan when asked why it took her so long to get on track. “That wasn't working well for us, so it was time for me to look a little more for my shot.”
Nolan scored 19 of her 27 points in the second half and Smith got hot from three-point range after the break. But at that point it was too late. The damage had been done.
Still, the Shock’s late-game push was a testament to the fight-to-the-end attitude that the team displayed all year, a year in which they posted the league’s best regular season record at 24-10 and rallied to win two postseason series against New York and Indiana.
“We don't hang our heads,” said Laimbeer. “We understand how the game is played. We're a very resilient bunch. And I think we look forward to playing in the Finals again next year.”