A Sizable Advantage
ESPN analysts Nancy Lieberman and Carolyn Peck shared their outlook on the 2008 WNBA Playoffs Tuesday. Neither gave the Fever much of a chance, beyond the caveat that anything can happen in a three-game series. The pivotal figure is not Nolan or Douglas, but rather Indiana center Tammy Sutton-Brown.
"The problem I think with Indiana is they're slim in the post. Because really if Sutton-Brown gets into foul trouble, I think that you take a big step down, not to discount the year that Ebony Hoffman's had," Peck said. "I think she's had a tremendous year this year. But I think the key part for Indiana is you've got to keep Sutton-Brown on the floor and out of foul trouble."
Lieberman, the former Shock head coach who made a player cameo for Detroit July 24, sounded impressed with her old team's complete arsenal. "I think Detroit is clearly the best team coming out of the East right now as far as depth, strength; they're the No. 2 rebounding team in the conference. They can score in the quarter court, they can beat you vertically [on the break]," she said. "I think they're amazing."
Center: Kara Braxton vs. Tammy Sutton-Brown
"To me, the key in this series is, Tammy Sutton-Brown has to lift her game," Lieberman said. "She has to be a presence on the offensive end, she has to have a presence on the defensive end and she has to stay out of foul trouble and that's been a problem for her."
Especially against Detroit. Brown picked up five fouls in each of the first two meetings, stunting otherwise productive outings. She had 12 points in 25 minutes and 11 points in 24 minutes. The Fever will need at least 30 minutes from Sutton-Brown to combat Detroit"s deep frontcourt.
The Shock are in a similar predicament with Braxton, whose game is often derailed by early fouls. That's why head coach Bill Laimbeer decided to bring her off the bench earlier in the season. She responded with a career high 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting against Indiana in her first game as a reserve.
While Braxton's game continues to fluctuate - she had three points on 1-of-7 shooting the next time out against the Fever - playing alongside newly acquired Taj McWilliams-Franklin has helped her make a productive return to the starting lineup. Braxton averaged 10.0 points and 5.7 rebounds in the last seven games. "I think that the benefit of having (McWilliams-Franklin) is only making Kara Braxton a better player," Peck said.
Power Forward: Taj McWilliams-Franklin vs. Ebony Hoffman
Laimbeer acted swiftly - three weeks to the day Ford tore her right ACL - to compensate for the loss of a dominant frontcourt presence. The transition has been seamless, with the Shock winning five of six with McWilliams-Franklin in the lineup. Lieberman credited Laimbeer for his proactive approach and not letting Ford's injury diminish Detroit's title chances.
"I think he's not afraid of that risk-reward to go out there and lobby for players," she said. "If you're going to, in a horrible way, lose Cheryl Ford, (McWilliams-Franklin's) numbers are just as suitable as Cheryl Ford's and she probably comes with a better team defensive style and more leadership qualities. I think Detroit actually has ended up being better by bringing her aboard."
It only seems like the Fever traded for another player. Coming off 4.2 points and 4.0 rebounds per game in 2007, Hoffman is a leading candidate to be named the league's Most Improved Player. She averaged 10.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 1.4 steals in her breakout fifth season. The 6-foot-2 forward likes to take her offensive game outside, which means her success also will be predicated on Sutton-Brown's effectiveness down low. Hoffman attempted more 3-pointers (57) than free throws (41).
"She wants to get the ball when everybody dives down on Sutton-Brown so she can shoot 3-pointers, and she did that this year," Lieberman said. "She shot 46 percent from three, a lot of that is because Tammy Sutton-Brown took a lot of the defense with her."
The Bench: Detroit vs. Indiana
Indiana's top reserve, guard Tan White, runs hot and cold. She made just one of seven field-goal attempts at Detroit Sept. 5, finishing with four points, and then poured in 24 at Atlanta three nights later. She was more effective against Detroit as a starter in place of Tamika Catchings, averaging 15.5 points in the first two meetings.
Depth is Detroit's clearest advantage. In addition to Pierson's 23 minutes, Hornbuckle (22.0 mpg) and centers Olayinka Sanni (10.5) and Kelly Schumacher (12.7) average more than 10 minutes per game. Guard LaToya Bond (10.2 minutes per game) is the only Fever reserve besides White to garner that many minutes. "We know that (the Fever) get an extraordinary amount of production out of their starters, but they have no bench," Lieberman said. "They're six deep... they get little or no production from the young people that are on their bench."
Detroit reserve Sheri Sam, a starting forward for the Fever in last year's conference finals and in 15 games this season, has 20 games of WNBA playoff experience, including a championship with Seattle in 2004. That's another facet of playoff basketball working against the Fever.
"I don't think they can stop Detroit in a three-game series," Lieberman said. "I think Detroit comes at you with too much depth, too much experience, too much energy and they have two rings and I think that means something."