Three Down... three to go?
The Shock won the first two meetings – in the 2006 first round and 2007 conference finals – which is one reason the Fever retooled in the off-season by replacing head coach Brian Winters with Lin Dunn and trading the interior presence of Tamika Whitmore for the All-Star scoring prowess of Katie Douglas.
If the Fever had hoped the high-powered perimeter tandem of Douglas and WNBA All-Decade Team member Tamika Catchings would negate Detroit’s strength in the post, they never got an adequate chance to prove it. In a WNBA scheduling quirk, the Shock played Indiana twice in May, before Catchings had a chance to return from the Achilles tendon injury she suffered against the Shock in Game 3 of the 2007 conference finals. The Shock, buoyed by Plenette Pierson’s emotional return from the suspension in the third meeting on Sept. 5, swept the regular-season series.
But the Fever, 5-3 since the Olympic break, are entering the playoffs in peak form. Indiana broke the 100-point barrier for the first time in franchise history Sunday in a 101-89 home victory over Phoenix. The win sends Indiana into the playoffs with a 17-17 record. But here’s how they went 0-3 against Detroit:
Shock head coach Bill Laimbeer didn’t waste any time tinkering with the lineup, starting rookie Olayinka Sanni at center in place of Kara Braxton for Detroit’s third game of the season. Braxton responded with a masterful performance at The Palace, making eight of 10 field-goal attempts for a career-high 22 points and seven rebounds.
Between Braxton and Pierson’s 20 points, the Shock dominated the paint. But Detroit was still working out the early kinks, committing 21 turnovers, and the Fever had a 58-56 lead entering the fourth quarter. Douglas had 26 points to lead Indiana, but the Fever clearly missed Whitmore’s defense.
“I think they’re more of a perimeter team than they were before with Whitmore, with the big body in there and the shot - she was such a confident shooter from the big position,” Laimbeer said. “We’ve always matched up pretty well with Douglas.”
Shock guard Deanna Nolan scored eight of her 14 points in the fourth quarter, including the go-ahead jumper with two minutes left and two free throws to make it 72-69 with 24.7 seconds left.
On the day Katie Smith was named to her third U.S. Olympic basketball team, the Shock guard scored a game-high 19 points to rally Detroit, which trailed by 10 points in the second quarter. Nolan, Cheryl Ford and Pierson shot a combined 0-for-10 from the field before halftime, but the Fever couldn’t capitalize on their 32-28 lead. The Shock took control with a 25-12 third quarter.
Detroit point guard Elaine Powell scored 14 points, her highest-scoring game since 2005, while Douglas couldn’t duplicate her success from the first meeting. She had nine points on 2-of-8 shooting from the field.
The Fever were doomed by Detroit’s 21 offensive rebounds, including four each by Ford, Pierson and Alexis Hornbuckle. Sanni, who had two put-back scores in the first quarter, set the tone early.
“It was obvious it was the rebounding,” said Fever forward Tammy Sutton-Brown, who had 11 points and six boards. “They are the No. 1 rebounding team for a reason. Detroit is always going to be a physical game. We have to match them and not expect the officials to call everything. When you look at the difference in the stat sheet, it is rebounding.”
A lot had changed for the Shock and Fever in the 14 weeks since their last meeting, but the outcome didn’t. Inspired by Pierson’s return from a controversial four-game suspension, the Shock scored 16 unanswered points in the second quarter right after the Fever had tied the game at 17.
Nolan also caught fire during the 16-0 run. She shot 6-for-6 in the quarter, including three 3-pointers, for 15 points. She finished with 19 points in just 28 minutes, well below her season average. Laimbeer showed a great deal of confidence in his reserves, and it paid off with a 48-15 advantage in bench points.
“Our bench players came in and contributed,” Laimbeer said when asked what impressed him about the 16-0 run. “Hornbuckle had a good second quarter, Sanni played well, and obviously Plenette played well. [Kelly] Schumacher’s given us some good quality minutes also. Everybody’s contributing, that’s fun."
Pierson had 20 points, half coming at the foul line (10-11 FTs), six rebounds and four assists, all team highs. Not surprisingly, Detroit shot a season-best 60.4 percent from the field while holding Indiana to 30.4 percent, a season low for a Shock opponent.
Catchings, in her first game at The Palace since tearing her Achilles tendon, proved she’s still a disruptive force at both ends. She filled the stat sheet with 20 points and 10 rebounds.
The victory was the start of a five-game winning streak and what has been an unblemished September (5-0) for Detroit heading into Game 1 Friday. Dating back to the 2007 conference finals, the Shock also have a five-game winning streak against the Fever.