Defending WNBA champs only look better so far in '07
Last year, the Detroit Shock had to play Game 5 of the WNBA Finals at Joe Louis Arena in downtown Detroit after a scheduling conflict rendered the team's official suburban home at The Palace of Auburn Hills unavailable by dint of Mariah Carey.
It's starting to look like Detroit's reign might only be in its infancy.
That the Shock are good -- even impressively, efficiently, glaringly good -- is hardly a staggering revelation. That they know they're good is also something less than groundbreaking news. Confidence has never been in short supply in the on-court countenances of Swin Cash, Cheryl Ford or Bill Laimbeer.
What's perhaps new, and alarming for the rest of the Eastern Conference, is a collective mentality that reflects the players' intent on proving how good they are on a nightly basis instead of expecting to win solely because of a reputation for being good. The Shock (6-0) are older, wiser and quite possibly better than they were last year.
Much is often written, no matter the sport, about the perilous path traversed by teams looking to win back-to-back championships. Distractions abound, complacency festers and competition grows more focused. Of course, to have such a distance to fall, you have to start out at the summit. And as Laimbeer pointed out after Sunday's 79-74 win on the road against longtime nemesis Connecticut, there are also benefits to having already made the championship climb.
"Actually, I think it's harder to win the first one than it is the second one, as long as your team has gone through the wars like we have," Laimbeer said. "When we won our first one [in 2003], we hadn't gone through the wars and we didn't know what to expect -- we were too young. This team knows what to expect. This team knows how to play hard and turn it up when they have to, so I think it might be easier to win this next one than it was the first one."
Few coaches speak with more experience on both ends of that spectrum. As a player, Laimbeer famously played a role for the Pistons that offered few opportunities to take a night off during their back-to-back NBA championships. But as he alluded to, he also watched a young team struggle to live up to the demands of defending a title after the Shock stunned the Sparks in 2003 with a starting lineup that included four players under 25.
Three of those players -- Cash, Ford and Deanna Nolan -- remain starters four years later (Elaine Powell, the elder stateswoman in the starting five in 2003 when she was 28, is on the current roster as a reserve). They each survived their individual travails in the intervening years, in the form of injuries (Cash), a misplaced shooting touch (Nolan) and the expectations of a coach who made his living being tougher than anyone else in the post (Ford). And that maturing core was bolstered by the addition of Katie Smith, a 14-year veteran of the U.S. women's national team, late in the 2005 season.
A prolific scorer for Ohio State and the Minnesota Lynx, Smith morphed last year into a point guard with a great shooting stroke, posting a career-high 3.3 assists per game and a near career-low 1.91 turnovers per game (second only to her WNBA debut season).
"We don't run any plays for Katie Smith," Laimbeer joked after she silenced a Connecticut rally with 17 second-half points. "She's our lead guard; she makes sure everyone else is involved and she's very comfortable doing that."
The results speak for themselves. Detroit is the league's lone unbeaten team heading into Friday's rematch with the Sun, this time at the Palace. The Shock are rebounding more effectively than last season, averaging nine more boards per game than their opponents. They are shooting the ball better, hitting at a 44.5 percent clip from the field, a mark they haven't come close to over a full season since 2003. And despite serving up transition opportunities with a rash of early turnovers (nearly 20 per game), the Shock are limiting opponents to 37.5 percent shooting from the floor. As much talent as the team has on offense -- and it often seems all five players are capable of creating for themselves when a half-court set breaks down -- it's that defense that makes them such a nightmare for opponents.
"At our 1, 2 and 3 positions, we have tall, physical, athletic and good defenders," Laimbeer said.
After starting 4-4 last season and watching Connecticut earn home-court advantage in the playoffs, the Shock aren't giving themselves anything to regret down the road.
"I think we're really concentrating on us," Smith said. "We're getting better. I don't think we're exactly where we want to be, or where we need to be, to be where we were last year at the end of the season. We have a different combination, different people with different roles. Honestly, we like where we're at; we're competing, trying to get our flow and our timing down. But our defense is pretty solid.
"We're also aware that every single game, people are going to give us their A game and we also are coming into every game saying we have to be ready and we have to come out ready to play. We've done a decent job of that -- I can't say we've had great games, but we've been able to duke them out and get the wins."
The idea that there was still room for improvement in the wake of last season's championship was driven home during an active offseason that included the departure of Ruth Riley and the addition of veteran point guard Shannon Johnson and young post Katie Feenstra. Riley's departure opened up minutes not only for Feenstra but for returnees Plenette Pierson and Kara Braxton as well, while Johnson provides the backcourt with more depth than it had, even after reacquiring Powell midway through last season.
"We knew with the trade of Ruth, we were going to have to have other post players to fill that spot," Nolan said. "That's one thing. And then our bench, we traded a lot of people to get a good bench, so we've tried to get them in the game and get our bench going. Other than that, we still had our same core players; we're still trying to get that timing with the addition of a new person in the starting lineup [Braxton has started the team's first six games] and the addition of new bench players."
The Shock aren't going to race through the regular season undefeated; they aren't invincible. There are still mental miscues and offensive possessions when Ford's newfound midrange touch deserts her, Cash gets lost in the shuffle or Braxton ends up looking bemused. And if the team's shooting percentage drops off or its glut of turnovers proves to be more than early-season sloppiness, opponents will start cashing in on enough easy baskets to turn hard-fought Detroit wins into disappointingly narrow defeats. But all of those things are the types of minutia teams can fix over the course of a regular season, provided the players involved aren't content to revel in past glory.
"For me, it's kind of like a day-to-day thing," Smith said. "From one game to the next game, you've got to prove it. I have to earn it. I feel like I have to prove myself every night. I want to win. I'm a competitor, kind of like Bill is. If you're going to do it, you want to do it because you want to win. We're playing because we want to win.
"For us to get to that level where we're playing well together will be phenomenal. This is a talented group, and if we can get that together, get the timing together and get us rolling on both ends of the floor, it would be pretty special."
Perhaps even special enough to bump the likes of Mariah Carey off the schedule.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.