2008 Detroit Shock Year in Review
They were without Cheryl Ford, whose eagerly anticipated return from the knee troubles of 2007 was cut tragically short. She spent the second half of the season on the sideline, done in by the other knee.
Plenette Pierson too was sidelined at the outset of the Finals, a casualty of another physical playoff series against the Fever. A year removed from being named the Sixth Woman of the Year, Pierson received another title from the WNBA office in 2008: �aggressor.�
Facing the WNBA�s youngest team in the conference finals, the Shock looked weary against the Liberty before prevailing in three games. Meanwhile, top-seeded San Antonio earned the first Finals berth in franchise history with a riveting Game 3 comeback over the Los Angeles Sparks. Winners of a league-best 24 games in the regular season, the Silver Stars had already defeated the Shock twice in 2008 - and had home-court advantage in the Finals. In other words, Detroit couldn�t have been in better shape to prove everybody wrong again.
The Shock did not simply regain their WNBA crown in 2008; they re-established the franchise as one of the most successful in league history. And definitely it�s most resilient. Their methodical three-game dismantling of the Western Conference champions was an understated finale to what had been an extraordinary six-month struggle.
�If you look at our season as a whole, the adversity that we went through, from Cheryl Ford starting the year with no practice time on half a knee, to (Elaine) Powell out for 20 games with a foot injury to losing Cheryl for the whole season, multiple suspensions, trades, rookies, the whole package - you wouldn�t have thought that we would be in this position� said Shock head coach Bill Laimbeer, wearing his third championship hat in six seasons after Game 3. �But we did. And that�s all that matters to the players and the coaches that go to battle every game. We knew we would be there.�
Motivated by their stinging defeat in the 2007 Finals - the Shock�s first Finals loss in three trips - Laimbeer was determined to make amends in 2008. �We understand how the game is played,� the Shock coach said following the Game 5 loss to the Phoenix Mercury. �We�re a very resilient bunch. And I think we look forward to playing in the Finals again next year.�
First, he had to retool the roster.
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Thomas, who had not met expectations as the No. 1 overall pick in 2003, could not resuscitate her career in Detroit. Slow to recover after off-season knee surgery, Thomas was dealt to Minnesota for guard Eshaya Murphy in June.
After acquiring Thomas, Laimbeer decided two weeks later to end the Swin Cash era in Detroit, sending the franchise cornerstone to Seattle for the No. 4 pick in the upcoming draft. Drafted No. 2 overall by the Shock in 2002, Cash left the franchise ranked No. 2 in games played, minutes, points, scoring average, field goals made and attempted, rebounds, assists and steals. Cash�s role had diminished in 2007, and Laimbeer seized the opportunity to get a high pick in what many believed would become the most fruitful draft class in league history.
On draft day Laimbeer used the pick on Tennessee guard Alexis Hornbuckle, who had just helped the Lady Vols capture a second straight NCAA title. Hornbuckle proved to be a steal - literally - as she led the WNBA in steals in her first season (2.3 spg) while playing just 22 minutes per game. The 5-foot-11 guard provided the tough, physical presence that Laimbeer wanted in his backcourt to complement his veteran guards.
Laimbeer looked to the Southeastern Conference again with the No. 11 pick by nabbing forward Tasha Humphrey from the Georgia. In a surprising move, the Dream passed up a public-relations home run by not selecting the Lady Bulldog at No. 8, preferring Tamera Young of James Madison. The Dream did another favor for Laimbeer when he turned the No. 18 pick from the Latta trade into West Virginia center Olayinka Sanni. The 6-foot-2 rookie was one of the pleasant surprises in training camp, quickly becoming a favorite of coaches and teammates.
�We�re very impressed with Sanni, unexpectedly so,� Laimbeer said. The three rookies provided a necessary jolt to Detroit�s veteran group, giving training camp a different feel than in years past.
The Burst to First
Detroit opened the regular season with a back-to-back, winning the home opener against Houston before falling at Minnesota, which was enough for Laimbeer to start shaking things up. He promoted Sanni to the starting lineup and moved center Kara Braxton to the bench, where she could let her considerable basketball instincts take over. Braxton responded with a then-career-high 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting and seven rebounds in a victory over the Fever. The Shock won their next five games.
The Shock wrapped up a 2-2 West Coast trip by defeating the Mercury in a nationally televised rematch of the �07 Finals. The 89-79 victory at Phoenix was headlined by Humphrey, who scored a franchise rookie record 28 points on 10-of-15 shooting, including 4-of-5 on 3-pointers. Humphrey had played sparingly up to that point, but her performance secured her spot in the rotation, eventually replacing Sanni as a starter. Hornbuckle also made an impact with 11 points and 15 rebounds. The Shock�s first-year arrivals were already paying off.
The Shock ended June at 12-5 and tied with Connecticut for the conference lead. They lost in overtime July 1 at San Antonio, 79-72, in a thrilling contest that hinted at what was to come in October. Detroit won four of its next five, and its lone loss came in a surreal evening at Madison Square Garden when the Liberty rallied from 18 down in the third quarter.
The Shock had their 10-game home winning streak snapped against the Sacramento Monarchs, 88-85, setting up the highly anticipated contest with the Sparks at The Palace July 22. With WNBA legend Lisa Leslie teaming with 2008 No. 1 pick Candace Parker, the Sparks had been the league�s top draw all season. The rekindled �Showtime vs. Motown� rivalry would get hotter than anyone could have anticipated.
A Devastating Blow
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Going up against the league�s top two rebounders, Leslie and Parker, Cheryl Ford had a chance to show the WNBA that she was back from microfracture knee surgery. She looked rusty in the first half of 2008, but by July 22 she was rounding back into All-Star form. She went right at the Sparks, scoring 13 points to go with a game-high nine rebounds.
The contentiousness between the teams heated up as the Shock roared back, scoring 29 in the fourth. Ford fouled Parker with 8.3 seconds left, and the two began jawing at each other. Leading 80-78, Parker missed both free throws, but an offensive rebound put the Sparks back at the foul line. Marie Ferdinand-Harris made the first but missed the second, setting the stage for an ugly scene.
While battling for the rebound, Pierson and Parker knocked each other to the floor. Taking umbrage at the contact, Pierson confronted the rookie. Players from both sides - on the floor and the bench - rushed to their comrades� defense, escalating the matter. Sparks forward DeLisha Milton Jones struck Shock assistant coach Rick Mahorn, who had attempted to break up the melee. Parker, Pierson, Milton-Jones and Mahorn were all ejected, with Deanna Nolan and L.A.�s Shannon Bobbitt receiving technical fouls.
Following the Sparks� 84-81 victory, the WNBA announced 10 suspensions, with Pierson�s four-game sentence the longest. The most surprising action was the two-game penalty assessed to Mahorn. Coaches around the league voiced their support for his attempt to stop the scuffle. �As a team, we�re incensed that Rick Mahorn was suspended,� Laimbeer said in a telephone interview. �He was trying to be a peacemaker and now he�s being thrown under the bus.� Braxton, Humphrey, Powell and Sheri Sam were suspended one game for leaving the bench.
Lost for a considerably longer time was Ford, who had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee minutes before the skirmish broke out. On the court at the time of the incident, Ford fell and had to be taken from the court in a wheelchair. The Shock captain, at the brink of a full recovery from left knee surgery, would now need another procedure on her right.
The July 22 fallout had left the Shock so shorthanded, Laimbeer had to stagger the suspensions in order to dress the league-minimum of seven players for their next game at Houston. He expedited the process by filling an empty roster spot, which allowed more suspensions to be served at once. He signed someone he had long wanted to get in a game, but the timing had never been right. Facing national media scrutiny following the tussle and Detroit-Houston airing on ESPN2, Laimbeer knew the timing was right to bring a familiar face aboard.
Laimbeer signed 50-year-old Nancy Lieberman, a former Shock head coach whose Hall of Fame playing career began as a two-time national collegiate player of the year in 1979 and 1980 and stretched into the WNBA�s inaugural season, playing her last professional game at the age of 39.
Lieberman played nine minutes against the Comets to become the oldest player in WNBA history, showing some of her point-guard flash with two assists. The publicity surrounding Lieberman�s cameo helped the league move past the ugliness of two nights earlier. �I think that people underestimate the mind of Bill Laimbeer,� said Comets forward Tina Thompson. �I commend Bill for changing the focus of the game from something so negative to bringing Nancy in and bringing something positive.�
The Shock replaced Lieberman with free agent center Kelly Schumacher, formerly of the 2007 champion Mercury, to improve frontcourt depth. The roster was still depleted and in disarray as the Western Conference-leading Silver Stars came to town. San Antonio cruised, 76-64, with center Ruth Riley scoring 14 points in her first game at The Palace since being traded before the 2007 season. The Shock shuffled into the Olympic break on a four-game slide.
�We knew two weeks ago we needed the break,� Laimbeer said. �And then the ceiling kind of caved in on us, the injuries and suspensions, and we need the break bad. We knew it was coming, just didn�t think it would collapse this much.�
Taj to the Rescue
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A league elder at 37, McWilliams-Franklin was playing for the young and struggling Mystics, who had already seen their head coach, Tree Rollins, lose his job. Eager to begin the rebuilding process, the Mystics jumped at Laimbeer�s offer of Humphrey, Murphy and a 2009 second-round draft pick. He had sacrificed Humphrey�s undeniable long-term potential for an aging starter in the twilight of her career. Laimbeer�s bold strike Aug. 12 put the entire league on notice: the Shock had every intention of winning it all in 2008.
McWilliams-Franklin had a few weeks to practice with the team before the season resumed. When it did, Detroit won five of its last six games to reclaim the Eastern Conference regular-season title. The Shock won the playoff opener at Indiana, 81-72, displaying the form that had once again made them the favorite to come out of the East and reach the Finals.
Plenette in Pain
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When the play ended, Pierson had to be helped off the floor. She was leading Detroit in points, rebounds and assists when she exited the game. A double-technical foul was assessed, infuriating the Shock bench for placing partial culpability on Pierson. While Pierson sat on the sideline with her right arm in a sling, Hoffman remained in the game, hitting a critical 3-pointer in overtime to seal the Fever�s series-tying 89-82 victory.
Pierson was sidelined for the decisive Game 3 with a dislocated right shoulder. While the WNBA rescinded the technical foul against Pierson, no further action was taken against Hoffman. Enraged by the league�s �pathetic response,� as Laimbeer called it, the shorthanded Shock blasted the Fever, scoring the first 12 points of Game 3 and building a 30-point halftime lead. Hoffman went 0-for-5 and did not score in the Shock�s 80-61 victory.
Pierson also missed Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals at New York, where the Liberty prevailed. With the season on the line, Pierson suited up for Game 2 at Eastern Michigan University�s Convocation Center, just one week after suffering the injury. Wearing a thick black brace over her arm, Pierson had 10 points, four rebounds and two assists.
"I give all the heart and credit in the world to Plenette Pierson today," Laimbeer said after Detroit�s 64-55 win. "If you could know how bad she is and how much it hurts her, for her to go out there and play that hard."
The extended regular season meant a condensed playoff schedule, and Game 3 was the very next day. Pierson was too sore to do any good, playing just six minutes. The Shock built a 20-point first-half lead thanks to hot shooting from Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith (10-of-16, 25 points combined).
When New York made a final charge, McWilliams-Franklin answered, scoring 15 of her 19 points after halftime. On the cusp of her third trip to the Finals, she awoke from an offensive slumber just in time. �She hadn�t had a good series, first two games she was beating her head against the wall. She knew she wasn�t playing well offensively,� Laimbeer said. �But her patience, her professionalism, carried the day for us in the fourth quarter.�
The Shock�s final obstacle in 2008 would be the Silver Stars - a team that had not lost to an Eastern Conference team all season. McWilliams-Franklin was quick to point out the Shock were a different team since she came aboard. Were they ever.
Silver Stars Silenced
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Even without Pierson, whose right arm remained in a sling, the Shock were clearly the better team in Game 1 at San Antonio, building a 14-point lead. When the Silver Stars rallied to tie the game with 2:16 left, the Shock scored the last eight points for a 77-69 victory. Katie Smith scored 25 points and McWilliams-Franklin added 24.
The Shock kept rolling in Game 2, making nine of their first 10 shots to take a 19-2 lead. The Silver Stars actually took a one-point lead in the third quarter before Smith closed them out again, draining a difficult fadeaway jumper that pushed Detroit�s lead to seven with 51.9 seconds left. The 34-year-old legend played every minute in San Antonio, scoring 47 points on 51.5 percent shooting (17-of-33) in the first two games. �She wanted the basketball,� Laimbeer said after Game 2. �Once again, two games in a row, her will to win the game is what carried us.�
Smith clinched her first Finals MVP honor in Game 3 at Eastern Michigan, scoring 11 of her team-high 18 points in the fourth quarter, turning a four-point lead into 18. Unable to stop the Shock onslaught, the Silver Stars panicked in the fourth and shot only 31.6 percent.
The 76-60 victory clinched the third WNBA championship by Detroit in six seasons, rousing chants of �3-D� at a rally in downtown Detroit the following day, presided over by Mayor Ken Cockrel, Jr.
McWilliams-Franklin, who had breathed life into the Shock and blew away the doubts and despair of late July, became a WNBA champion for the first time. Despite numerous individual honors, McWilliams-Franklin had to wait until her 10th WNBA season to celebrate the moment she had started to think would never come.
�The will to win on this team is unmatched - I've never seen anything like it,� said McWilliams-Franklin, who began the 2008 season on last-place Washington after playing for last-place Los Angeles in 2007. �Winning games is what this group lives for.�