Very Much Alive
The Shock did not merely even the Eastern Conference Finals with their 77-63 Game 2 victory; they delivered a dazzling team performance, one that finally befit a team with the league’s best regular-season record.
The Shock outscored the Indiana Fever 21-2 during one first-half stretch to build a 41-32 halftime lead, then opened the third quarter on 27-7 run. The construction of Detroit’s 29-point lead was in itself a highlight reel with big plays by everyone from Deanna Nolan, who scored a game-high 24 points, to Pee Wee Johnson, who played only seven minutes but made a no-look pass behind the back to Nolan for a fast-break layup.
“We played at a pace there in the second, third quarter especially, we played at a pace that was spectacular to watch, both defensively and in the transition game,” Laimbeer said. The Shock are now 3-0 in elimination games this postseason alone, but this Sunday’s win came far easier than the first two against New York. “I thought our energy level was from the start was much better than we ever had so far in the playoffs,” he added. “I thought Swin Cash set the tone with her energy level and her focus.”
Laimbeer called Game 1 an exercise in frustration. On Tuesday, a couple of players who have recently frustrated him – center Kara Braxton and Cash – gave him plenty of reasons to be encouraged. Cash had the game’s only double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds and Braxton was 5-for-5 for 10 points in 25 minutes.
Called to action after Cheryl Ford was hit with two early fouls, Braxton scored six points in the second quarter in a variety of ways – a baseline jumper, an up-and-under move and a drive to the basket. She had eight points in the first half, and then knocked down a short jumper to make it an 18-point game. Braxton’s best play may have been the Indiana pass she deflected for a steal, knocking the ball to a teammate with the type of hustle play rarely seen from her in June and July.
“It’s hit or miss with her in a lot of ways, but we challenged her today that it was important for her to keep her focus as best as possible,” Laimbeer said of Braxton. “She made her shots, I thought she was a big presence out there. If we can get that kind of effort from her in the next game, that’ll be a big bonus for us; we’ll be very pleased.”
Cash, who played 15 minutes in Game 1, scored on consecutive possessions, once off an offensive rebound, early in the third quarter to keep Detroit on the attack. “When she’s not at that mental level that I need her to be, I don’t play her and that’s what happened in the first game of this series – she knows it, I know it, it goes unspoken,” Laimbeer said. “I expected her to come today with the passion and drive that she showed, and that was great for us. When she does that, we’re a very good basketball team.”
Detroit built its lead on an effective zone defense and dominant rebounding, despite only 21 minutes by Ford, who was limited to 19 minutes by foul trouble and knee pain. Ford will play Monday, and should benefit from not having to log heavy minutes Sunday.
“I thought being in that zone helped us a lot, especially with rebounding,” said Nolan, who had six rebounds, six assists and shot 4-for-5 from 3-point range. “I thought we rebounded great today. We got out and ran today. We attacked, everybody was aggressive across the board, so that’s what got us our lead.”
On one remarkably fluid sequence, Katie Smith rebounded a missed free throw, threw the ball downcourt to Nolan who found Cash streaking down the middle of the court for a layup, making it a 24-point game. “It was a lot of fun,” Cash said. “The great thing about our team is when we play defense and we get out on transition and get easy baskets, we’re getting energetic, our fans are getting into it and that’s fun basketball. That’s what it’s about. I don’t think there’s a team out there that can stay with us in the transition game. If we do that, that just ignites our offense even more.”
Tempers flared as Fever forward Tamika Whitmore was called for a technical and Tamika Catchings earned a flagrant-1 foul for knocking down Plenette Pierson. Detroit’s lead peaked at 68-39 after Pierson’s trip to the line with 2:42 left in the third quarter.
The Fever put together a 15-1 run to cut Detroit’s lead in half, the final 14-point margin a deceiving indication of how soundly Indiana had been beaten. Whitmore and Catchings burned the Shock in Game 1; Sunday they combined for 19 points and five rebounds.
Game 2’s lopsided nature makes it hard to envision any aspect of this series as even, but Laimbeer was quick to remind the media that the Shock advanced for winning the close games, not the blowout. That’s why he’s ready for anything in Monday’s Game 3 at The Palace, the winner of which will face Phoenix in the WNBA Finals. “Our focus is win the game, if it happens to get in the situation like we had today where we blow it out to a big lead, hey great. But we’re prepared for anything that happens tomorrow.”