Phoenix Flunks Out
Turnabout is fair play.
The Shock ousted the defending champion Mercury from 2008 postseason consideration Tuesday with an 89-78 victory, and with some help regained first place in the Eastern Conference. The Sun lost at Houston, meaning Detroit can clinch home-court advantage through the first two playoff rounds if they win their last two games. Connecticut and Detroit are deadlocked at 20-12.
While Detroit boosted their playoff prospects, residing down the corridor were the Mercury, who became the first WNBA champion to miss the postseason the following year. As has been the case much of the season without All-Star forward Penny Taylor, the Mercury’s high-scoring tandem of Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter couldn’t top the balanced scoring effort of their opponent. The league’s top two scorers combined for 45 of Phoenix’s 78 points, but Detroit attacked the Mercury zone defense and had six scorers in double figures, led by Deanna Nolan’s 18 points.
“Well I thought we shared the ball real well today,” said head coach Bill Laimbeer, who has won 20 games for the fourth time in six full seasons with Detroit. “Twenty-three (assists) on 30 baskets is pretty good, but that’s their zone. You move the ball crisply - even though we had 20 turnovers - I thought we took care of the ball adequately.”
The Shock also dominated the boards, 42-25. Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Kara Braxton and Alexis Hornbuckle tied for the team high with eight rebounds.
Detroit had a textbook opening with two scores from McWilliams-Franklin, a strong post move by Braxton and a 3-pointer from Nolan for a 9-0 lead. The Mercury had three turnovers and six missed shots from the field on their first nine possessions.
The Mercury went on one of their patented scoring sprees in the second quarter and held a brief one-point lead before the Shock went into halftime with a 41-40 edge. Two Katie Smith 3-pointers, first to make it 50-47 and then 59-54, helped Detroit gain some distance in the third. Smith finished with 17 points.
Backup center Olayinka Sanni also scored nine of her 11 points in the third and finished 5-for-5 from the field in 14 minutes. “We thought Olayinka Sanni came in and gave us great energy off the bench both offensively and defensively, really lifted us up real big,” Laimbeer said.
Sanni, who played only three minutes in the game at Phoenix June 14, got her first taste of the run-and-gun style that propelled Phoenix to its first WNBA title last September. “I was getting winded a bit going up and down but it was fun,” Sanni said. “It was a different type of ball game and it’s always fun to play games like that against Phoenix and know you’re running and going up and down the court.”
After Kelly Mazzante opened the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer to make it 65-64, the Mercury went cold. They missed five of their next six field goals as Detroit built a 13-point lead. Taurasi scored just four of her 22 points in the fourth quarter. “We executed well and our defense was solid, we made them take some tough shots,” Laimbeer said. “Taurasi took two or three really highly contested shots in a row and it didn’t go in and we got the rebound and scored and extended the lead.”
Despite another Mercury run - 10 unanswered points to pull within 79-76 - the Shock kept their cool. They didn’t miss in 14 trips to the foul line in the fourth quarter, making 24 of 26 free throws overall. Plennette Pierson was 2-for-11 from the field but went 10-for-10 at the foul line for 13 points.
“I thought we responded well. At the times they were making their runs we were doing dumb turnovers or trying to play fast when we just needed to slow it up. We were up 13 points,” Nolan said. “But I thought we played well down the stretch, controlling the tempo after we turned it over and they got within three points.”
The Shock and Mercury have had a series of memorable meetings the past two seasons. The Shock scored a franchise record 111 points in last year’s regular-season meeting at The Palace, including a WNBA record 72 points after halftime. For a Palace encore they combined for a Finals record 209 points in Detroit’s 108-101 Game 1 win - only for the Mercury to become the WNBA’s first champion to clinch on the road in Game 5.
There were no records broken Tuesday - only the hopes of the reigning champion to defend their crown. The Mercury’s downfall in 2008 was as rapid as their ascent in 2007. Their predicament puts Detroit’s string of conference titles and postseason appearances in a whole new light.
“Yes, it does put it perspective for us, especially losing at home, Game 5 and actually putting them out tonight against us is a little revenge, so to speak,” Nolan said. “But at the same time they’re a great team. This year just wasn’t a good season for them.”