A Promising Start
It was becoming one of those nights when a soul-crushing collapse seemed imminent.
But Shock head coach Bill Laimbeer didn't waver when the Silver Stars erased a 14-point deficit to tie the score at 69 with 2:16 to play. He didn't even call a timeout, which he last did three minutes earlier still leading by six.
"Did I think about calling another timeout?" Laimbeer said. "Yes, but I decided no, I'm going to let my players play through this because they are that good and I trust them. They will make those plays, and they did."
The Shock scored the last eight points, sealing a 77-69 victory that came just how Detroit likes them: with the highest degree of difficulty possible. From the late first quarter on, the Shock outplayed and then outlasted the Silver Stars, who won a league-high 24 games and defeated Detroit twice in the regular season. They did it in San Antonio's gym and without forward Plenette Pierson, whose right shoulder injury sidelined her Wednesday and could potentially do so again in Game 2.
Taj McWilliams-Franklin poured in 24 points on 11-of-16 shooting. She assisted on Kara Braxton's go-ahead layup to make it 71-69, and then made two free throws to ice it. The last of Katie Smith's game-high 25 points followed on a pull-up jumper that made it a two-possession game. She shot 8-of-17 from the floor, including 4-of-8 from 3-point range.
"Katie and Taj set the tone for us at the beginning of the game," said Deanna Nolan, who deferred to the hot hands while drawing plenty of San Antonio defenders for 40 minutes. "In the last series we had problems starting out making shots, and they wanted to get us going, especially Taj, and Katie followed right behind her."
Coming off a 15-point second half in Game 3 of the conference finals, McWilliams-Franklin kept rolling in her first Finals appearance since 2005. She made her first four field goals while the rest of the Shock were 2-for-9. Detroit trailed 18-15 after the first quarter.
The Shock took command with a 12-2 lead spanning the late first and early second quarters. Laimbeer turned to the frontcourt lineup of Braxton for offense and Kelly Schumacher for defense on Silver Stars center Ann Wauters, who scored 16 points and could have put Braxton in foul trouble.
Braxton scored six straight points, one field goal to end the first quarter and two more field goals to open the second. Then Schumacher hit a long jumper - her only points - to give Detroit a 23-20 lead. Schumuacher, a reserve center in last year's finals for Phoenix, wasn't considered a defensive ace when Detroit signed her in July. But Laimbeer saw the tools - intelligence, work ethic and the wingspan of someone 6-foot-5 - for her to become one.
"Her length showed today," Laimbeer said. "Whether she was beat once, she still blocked a shot. On a help position, she blocked a shot. She's able to challenge shots of Wauters or somebody that size, and she played smart."
Schumacher had four rebounds, two blocks, one steal and a team-high four fouls. Her valuable minutes protected the foul-prone Braxton, who drew only two whistles in 24 minutes. That allowed Braxton to be on the floor at the end. She broke the 69-69 tie with a potential three-point play. She missed the free throw, but later corralled the defensive rebound that forced San Antonio to foul and stop the clock.
"We have five or six people who have been in the finals and been in the playoffs and they're vets at that, so we just ride on their backs," said Braxton, who had 10 points and four rebounds.
Smith didn't carry the Shock, but she definitely led the way in extending the lead. Her four-point play late in the second quarter gave the Shock its first double-digit lead just before halftime, 40-30. She added seven points in third quarter, pushing the lead to 13 with another triple. When Morenike Atunrase responded with the Silver Stars' only 3-pointer - San Antonio shot 1-for-12 from downtown - to cut the lead under 10, Smith quieted the crowd with another 17-footer.
"Katie Smith was phenomenal out there. She wanted the basketball," Laimbeer said. "Her will pushed us along way today."
Coming off the second highest-scoring game in WNBA playoff history, Silver Stars point guard Becky Hammon fell well short of 35 points. She had just four points through three quarters, making one of five field goals. Hammon finished with 13 points, which Laimbeer credited to his all-league defenders, Smith and Nolan, and Alexis Hornbuckle, the league's steals leader as a rookie.
"So we have quality guards who play defense," Laimbeer said. "So in individual one-on-one (situations) they can hold their own, and they can push them to where help is going to be. As long as the help understands their responsibilities, that's how we can keep great players from dominating the game."
Laimbeer could be glib afterward, but the Silver Stars' rally coincided with the technical foul called on him with 7:33 to play. The Shock had their largest lead, 65-51, when Laimbeer became overly animated in his lobbying for a three-second call.
"It was not that I wanted to get on the referee's case, but I was so into the game that... my frustration level was growing that I just got excited," he said. "Now did I deserve a technical foul? Yeah, I can't jump around, all hysterical and make everybody look bad. But I hope I got the point across that, hey, make calls."
For the first time in four trips to the WNBA Finals, the Shock didn't have home-court advantage heading into the series. They quickly earned it Monday.
Which, of course, meant little to Laimbeer, who knows that home-court didn't win them the title in 2007 Finals. The Shock won Game 1 last year, too. It was Game 2 that got away.
"I don't want to hear about we got the home court back. This is one game," he said. "We have another one Friday, 48 hours from now."