Smiths clutch shooting helps put Shock back on track

Winning at the Wire

Sure, the Shock caught some breaks Wednesday night in Seattle. But it’s about time their fortunes changed. A week ago they were 2-7, and worse yet, several players said they deserved their record.

“In the losses that we’ve had, we’ve really only been beaten twice,” said Deanna Nolan. “Other games, we’ve beaten ourselves.”

“We feel like we haven’t played hard for a full 40 minutes,” said Katie Smith. “… I think we’ve never been locked in as a group.”

Forty minutes? Try 45. That’s how many the Shock needed to prevail at Connecticut last Saturday, avenging an overtime loss to the Sun July 5. Their newfound determination carried over to Seattle, where the Shock had arguably their most precise opening half of the season, building a 39-30 halftime lead.

When the Storm managed to draw even, later taking a 63-60 lead with 2:59 to play, the Shock reverted to old form - 2008 championship form. Katie Smith scored the game’s last six points and Detroit won, 66-63.

Smith hit the big shots, and Detroit got the big stops, performing with a mix of swagger and poise seldom exhibited this season. With All-Stars Lauren Jackson (calf injury) and Swin Cash (who fouled out for the first time in a Storm uniform) on the sideline, the Storm missed their last six shots, including an off-balance 17-footer by Sue Bird to win with four seconds left.

Here are four- and by no means the only four - reasons the 4-7 Shock are enjoying their first winning streak of the season. The road trip continues Saturday against the league-leading 11-4 Phoenix Mercury.

1. Katie Smith - Smith has been 2008 Finals-caliber excellent the past couple of games, following her season-high 28 points in the July 5 loss to Connecticut with efforts of 25 and 19 in the subsequent wins.

“Let me tell you something, this young lady, she has turned it up in the last three games,” Shock coach Rick Mahorn said after the Seattle victory. “She’s carried the team on her back and taken over games. She says, ‘Look, follow me, it’s my time.’”

In those victories, Smith used the first three quarters as warm-up before really turning it on. Smith scored 24 points in those games after the third quarter, making a blistering 8-of-13 from the field, including 2-of-4 from 3-point range and 6-for-6 at the free-throw line.

2. Rebounding - With Cheryl Ford and Kara Braxton missing games to start the season, the Shock were a marginal rebounding team, betraying one of the cornerstones of Shock basketball in the Laimbeer-Mahorn era. But over the last two games, Detroit has once again been dominant on the glass, holding a plus-20 advantage (77-57).

At Connecticut, the Shock grabbed a season-high 49 rebounds, with Braxton grabbing a season-high 13 rebounds and Ford adding 12 more, including five offensive. When the Sun won at The Palace six nights earlier, the Shock were outrebounded in the fourth quarter, 10-8, and surrendered five offensive rebounds to the Sun.

“When we played Connecticut at home, we had a lead and we gave it up in the fourth quarter, so what we wanted to do tonight was make sure that we got quality possessions,” said Taj McWilliams, the only member of the Shock frontcourt to play in ever game this season.

“I always remember when I was playing here, [Sun assistant coach Scott] Hawk would be screaming, ‘One more rebound! One more rebound!’ That’s something that when you have heard it enough times, you keep it with you.”

At Seattle, the Shock held the Storm - the league’s worst rebounding team -- to a season-low 22 rebounds, getting all the loose balls down the stretch. The Shock did not allow a Seattle offensive rebound in the fourth quarter, limiting the Storm attack to one-and-dones.

3. Anna DeForge - Can’t argue with 2-0, right? The veteran sniper started her first game with the Shock after signing Friday, and then played nearly the entire game in place of the injured Deanna Nolan. In nearly 38 minutes, DeForge contributed eight rebounds, two assists and two points. She scored six against the Storm.

The point totals aren’t flashy, but more importantly, DeForge gives Mahorn another trustworthy ball-handler on the perimeter, which takes a lot of pressure off Smith and Nolan to both facilitate ball movement and score. It also addresses the Shock’s proclivity to turn the ball over, especially down the stretch. DeForge played all 15 minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime against the Sun, committing only one turnover in that time.

4. The Bench - Another benefit of DeForge’s arrival is that the younger backcourt players, Alexis Hornbuckle and Shavonte Zellous, can stay in their more familiar roles off the bench. Each has shined in one of Detroit’s recent wins.

Zellous - whose scoring upswing since moving to the bench is well documented - played the entire fourth quarter at Seattle, draining a crowd-silencing 15-footer after Seattle took its largest lead of the game, 59-55. She led Detroit’s reserves with eight points.

Hornbuckle, the WNBA’s reigning steals leader, had three steals in all of June (six games). She matched that total with three steals and 11 points at Connecticut, both season highs. She also leads all WNBA guards in rebounding (6.3 rpg).

At the start of 2009, Detroit’s depth was supposed to be one of its strengths, as it has been in recent seasons. But injuries - none more significant than the season-ending shoulder injury to arguably the league’s best reserve, Plenette Pierson - left the Shock struggling to find enough bodies.

But Detroit’s bench strength was evident at Connecticut behind the performances from Hornbuckle and Braxton, who notched her first double-double of the season, 14 points and 13 rebounds. The Detroit reserves outscored Connecticut’s bench, 36-9.

Braxton’s absence was conspicuous during her six-game suspension to start the season, but she has posted 10.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game since her return.