In tough times, McWilliams anchors Detroit

Exceeding Expectations

When it’s all said and done, Taj McWilliams might call the Atlanta game the turning point of the season.

Not this Atlanta game, Wednesday’s 98-95 overtime defeat to the Dream. This game happened a month earlier, when the Shock lost in less competitive fashion at Philips Arena, 96-86. The defending champions, in their first loss to the second-year franchise, fell to 1-5.

1-5? This is not what McWilliams came back for. Not at 38, not when she could have grooved to Marvin Gaye right off the championship-rally platform and into retirement. No, this wouldn’t do for an encore; she’d rather retire. And that’s precisely what she told her teammates.

“I kind of went off in the locker room and said pretty much the same thing to the girls. Don’t waste the time that’s precious to people like myself, people like Katie [Smith],” McWilliams said. “If you don’t want to come out and play, let me know. I’ll go home to my daughter.”

The Shock won two nights later over the Monarchs, and went on to play .500 ball (4-4) into the All-Star break. “We’re at a nice, even keel now,” she said. “I got it out, I’m over it, and I’m ready to go to war.”

Is she ever.

McWilliams has started every game this season, logging many more minutes than anyone would have imagined in May. She plays as crucial a role to the team’s success now as when she arrived last August and was asked to “replace” All-Star Cheryl Ford. It has been a heavy burden to carry, perhaps unfairly so, but she won’t unload it on her teammates, not after they’ve started to right the ship. Retire? From all recent indications, she’s just getting started.

“What’s more exciting than playing? I’m 38, and I’m playing the game most people dream of playing at 38, so for me it’s just mind over matter,” she said. “The Lord keeps putting the oil in the places like the Tin Man and I just go out there.”

Even as a starter, McWilliams was supposed to be a complementary player in 2009, a veteran whose leadership and ability to step up in big games would be called on occasionally. Detroit’s loaded frontcourt would ease the wear and tear on the league’s oldest active player. On paper, Detroit’s most dynamic frontcourt would have been Plenette Pierson at small forward, Cheryl Ford at power forward and Kara Braxton at center. When injury or foul trouble forced one to the sideline, McWilliams could log more minutes than usual for a game or two. She was a six-time All-Star insurance plan.

The theory never had a chance to be put into practice. Pierson’s season ended on opening day, before either Ford or Braxton could enter the lineup. It would be the end of June before the Shock had the other two in uniform together. All the while, there was McWilliams. Playing 29.7 minutes per game, McWilliams had quite literally become Detroit’s first line of (frontcourt) defense.

“We didn’t think she’d be playing 30-plus minutes, but she’s capable of doing it,” said head coach Rick Mahorn. “We thought she’d at least give us 25, 22 [minutes], but it’s been great to have her come out there as a warrior.”

McWilliams, who has averaged 31.1 minutes per game over her career, was playing 33 minutes a night just last season with Washington before coming to Detroit. Her numbers this season - 9.9 points and 6.0 rebounds per game - are lower than her career averages, but McWilliams insists it’s not age or fatigue. Rather, it’s simply her early-season routine of stepping back, “just to see how things roll before I do what I need to do to win.”

Her recent surge backs up that assessment. McWilliams, who grabbed at least 10 rebounds just once in the first 11 games, posted consecutive double-doubles at Phoenix and Sacramento, respectively, last weekend. She had 12 points and 12 rebounds in the overtime loss to the Mercury, and came back the next night with one of her best outings in a Shock uniform.

“I always play better on back-to-backs,” said McWilliams, recalling a conversation with head trainer Laura Ramus. “I told Miss Laura, I don’t know why, I’m much better on a back-to-backs than just one game a week.” She posted 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting and 12 rebounds at Sacramento. She scored the game’s final four points to break a 65-65 tie, including a controversial put-back layup with 7.3 seconds left.

“I’ve just been more focused on rebounding, more focused on what I need to do for the team to be successful,” said McWilliams, who grabbed 10 of her 24 rebounds in those games off the offensive glass. “The Sacramento game, I just hit a couple more shots than I usually do, that’s pretty much it.”

Sacramento was her second-highest scoring game with the Shock after the 24 points she had in Game 1 of the 2008 Finals. She averaged 15.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in the series, after which she said she had never been on a team so determined to win.

McWilliams is out to prove that’s still the case. She wonders if she wouldn’t rather be at home playing mom instead of power forward, “and then there’s the added challenge of, ‘We can’t end like this.’”

“This is not me, this is not this team, the Detroit Shock I played against all those years,” she said. “There’s another challenge for me here.”

The challenge proved too much Wednesday. Despite 15 points and five rebounds from McWilliams, the Dream sent the Shock into the All-Star break at 5-9 - still four games under .500, just as they were in Atlanta a month ago. It's taken a lot from McWilliams to help the Shock reach an even keel. In the season's second half, it might take even more to keep them there.