Shock leave no doubt in impressive playoff opener

Perfect Start

No one knows if the Detroit Shock’s 2008 postseason will end any better than it did in 2007. But it’s sure off to a better start.

The Shock were favored to win their first-round series against the Fever, yet the fashion in which they captured Game 1 at Indiana Friday night, 81-72, strongly suggests this series could be over after Game 2 Sunday at The Palace.

Any perceived Detroit weaknesses that might have given the Fever a chance to win their only home game of the series never materialized, beginning with complacency. The Shock have paid for moments of hubris before. They were overwhelming favorites last year against the Liberty. They lost the playoff opener in New York by 22 points and needed overtime in Game 3 to escape the series. Worn down, they lost Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals at Indiana, scoring 13 first-quarter points.

Detroit’s ability to block out the experts’ predictions and the Conseco Fieldhouse crowd was undeniable Friday. The usually slow-starting Shock seized a 22-17 lead in the first quarter, also outscoring Indiana in the second and third quarters. The first-half defense – Indiana had only 29 points at the break – made clear that the Shock were locked in. And the Fever were not.

“Well, we’ll have to dig down deep and find it within ourselves,” said forward Ebony Hoffman, whose 9-for-13 shooting night went for naught. “We’ll have to find pride in ourselves to get an extra rebound, box out and do some of the little things. We didn’t come out focused. We kind of fizzled out at the end.”

Hoffman and Tamika Catchings scored 19 apiece for the Fever, but the players whom ESPN analysts Nancy Lieberman and Carolyn Peck identified as critical to Indiana’s success – Katie Douglas and Tammy Sutton-Brown – were virtual no-shows. An 0-for-4 shooting night by leading scorer Douglas and a 1-for-8 line from Sutton-Brown, Indiana’s highest percentage field-goal shooter, spelled their doom.

“We missed too many open shots. We must do a better job of taking open shots,” Fever coach Lin Dunn said. “Ebony played extremely well. She took her game to another level. We must get more productivity from Tammy and Katie.”

Sutton-Brown’s disappointing display could not contrast more with that of her counterpart, Kara Braxton, who has a track record of becoming a non-factor in big games. The Shock center played an extremely productive and efficient 14-plus minutes. She scored nine points on 3-of-6 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds, picking up only three personal fouls along the way. She had four of Detroit’s eight offensive boards.

Forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who had 17 points and seven rebounds, has helped Braxton relax and trust her immense talent. Supported by rookie Olayinka Sanni (four points in 12 minutes) and veteran Kelly Schumacher (one assist, one rebound in five minutes), Braxton no longer appears to be the liability she was when she had to play extensive minutes in prior postseasons.

Of course, any points from Braxton are a bonus when Deanna Nolan is playing the Fever. The all-league guard once again scored at will, knocking down 4-of-6 from 3-point range and 8-of-11 overall for 22 points. Dating back to last year’s conference finals, Nolan has made an astounding 16 of 22 3-point tries (72.7 percent), shot 48.5 percent from the field overall and averaged 22.3 points in her last four playoff games against the Fever.

“Nolan split us open right down the middle,” Hoffman said. “You can’t stop great players. It’s a matter of slowing them down and we didn’t do that tonight.”

One more reason the Fever should be concerned: they lost handily despite Detroit getting almost nothing from Katie Smith, their second-leading scorer in 2008 and only the third member of the WNBA’s 5,000-point club. She had more fouls (five) than points (three), and missed the only three field-goal attempts she took.

That won’t happen again in Detroit. Which means the same thing might happen to Indiana.