Eastern Conference Champions
In the first 20 minutes of the deciding game for the Eastern Conference crown, the Detroit Shock took the Indiana Fever’s best shot - and then Indiana suffered its toughest blow.
Shock All-Star Deanna Nolan had 20 points, 15 from 3-point range. Fever All-Star Tamika Catchings had to be helped off the floor, unable to walk.
The Shock won, 81-65, defeating the Fever in Game 3 of the East finals to extend their conference reign another season and book a date with the Phoenix Mercury, who will be at The Palace Wednesday for the first game of the 2007 WNBA Finals.
On some level, the playoffs have played out how Shock head coach Bill Laimbeer had anticipated - they have lost road games to open their first two playoff series, but won four straight at home, each time facing elimination. The Shock are now 11-2 under Laimbeer games that could have ended their season, including 7-0 over the last two seasons.
“We play all year long to secure the home-court advantage, we talk about it from the start of the year, until the end of the year, that if we win our home games, we are the WNBA champions again, and that has been our mentality,” Laimbeer said.
The Shock - a team that enjoyed a big early deficit if there ever was one - was down seven before they even scored and trailed 16-3 four minutes into the game. Fever center Tammy Sutton-Brown scored seven straight points to tie the Shock by herself as Indiana led, 20-7.
“It’s very extreme, especially at the start of a game,” said Nolan, who scored a franchise postseason record with 30 points on 7-for-9 shooting from 3-point range. “You never want to get down by that many at the start of a game because you know sometimes it can be hard to come back from that. But we were able to step our defense up, limit their second shots, get after the rebounds and get out and run in transition and that got us back into the game.”
As quickly as Detroit had fallen behind, they drew even. Or rather Nolan and Detroit’s centers - Kara Braxton and Katie Feenstra - did. They scored the team’s first 28 points, eventually tying the game at 28 before forward Swin Cash made a go-ahead basket in the second quarter.
“I was not surprised we got off to a bad start. I really didn’t see the same intensity that I saw in the last game,” Laimbeer said. “I warned them this afternoon at shootaround and it still didn’t do any good. But, however, we’re resilient. Nolan got us going, made some big hoops and then our role players came in - Plenette Pierson, Kara Braxton, Katie Feenstra chimed in. They started contributing and that helped us out also.”
Feenstra, who has struggled to find a niche in the playoffs, scored a postseason high 11 points on 5-for-6 shooting. “I just had a mind-set of rebounding and a mindset of transition,” said Feenstra, who along with Pee Wee Johnson and rookie Ivory Latta will try to win their first WNBA championship rings. “I didn’t want them to have easy baskets. So I guess going into the game that was a big emphasis on my part, so I just kind of tried to carry that through.”
If Indiana’s morale was rattled by Detroit’s rapid turnaround, it was shaken to its core when Catchings - the Fever’s franchise cornerstone and one of the league’s alltime best two-way players - had to leave the game late in the second quarter due to a right Achilles strain. Because she was unable to return to the game for the ensuing jump ball and be properly substituted for, she could not re-enter the game. That turned out to be a moot point as Fever coach Brian Winters called the injury “fairly significant” after the game. Catchings left last year’s series finale with Detroit with a concussion.
“I hope she’s okay. It looked like she really hurt herself there,” Laimbeer said. “Hate to see somebody go down. That’s two years in a row in our series that she has left in the deciding game.
We’ll take any win we can get it,” he continued. “I’m not going to get on the high horse and say I wish everyone had played at full strength. Any way you can get to where you need to be, you need to get there.”
Regarded as the top two contenders for the WNBA title in May, a head-to-head meeting between Detroit and Indiana at full strength never materialized. The closest they came was July 20, when the Shock won 89-80 at Indianapolis. Cheryl Ford (left knee) and Catchings (left foot) both left in the second half with injuries and missed the rest of regular season. Both returned for the playoffs and were playing effectively, making the East finals the series WNBA fans had anticipated. The ending it deserved, however, never came to fruition.
After a Catchings jumper tied the game at 30-all with 2:56 left in the second quarter, Catchings went down for good on their next possession. The Fever did not score for five minutes, until Sheri Sam’s 3-point play at 7:59 of the third quarter, by which time Detroit led 41-33. The Fever had eight field goals in the first quarter, but they had eight in the next two quarters combined, shooting 22.8 percent (8-for-35).
The Fever had a chance to tie the game at 44 but Sutton-Brown missed her second free throw. Ford - who Laimbeer thought wouldn’t return to the game after leaving in the opening minutes - scored five points on the next two possessions to put Detroit up, 49-43. The Shock rolled from there, leading by 20 with 1:21 left in the fourth when Laimbeer emptied the bench.
“Cheryl Ford was basically done for the day after the first event in the first quarter, when she got her second foul, she was in so much pain she was basically done,” he said. “She sucked it up said she would go back in the game and she was a rebounding machine out there, had 15 rebounds in 18 minutes on one leg, was spectacular.”
Ford, however, didn’t want to talk about the injury, or how she felt. She preferred to focus on her third Eastern Conference title in five years and second straight trip to the WNBA Finals. “It’s not about my injury, dog, we won,” Ford said. “That’s all that matters.”