- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
- 0 Shares
The odds are against him. But that has never stopped Bill Laimbeer, who took his Detroit Shock from worst to first last season in the WNBA.
On Thursday, when Laimbeer's WNBA All-Stars take on the U.S. national team at the Radio City Music Hall, the stakes aren't nearly as high. But the ever-competitive Laimbeer has high hopes. And he's not being shy about sharing them.
"We're going to try and win this sucker!" he exclaimed in a recent phone interview.
And that's why Thursday's game (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) promises to be more than your average all-star contest. These sorts of exhibitions usually feature a lot of flash and dash, no-look passes, and for that matter, no defense.
That won't be the case Thursday. For starters, the U.S. national team has just nine practice sessions scheduled before the start of the Athens Games, so coach Van Chancellor and his Olympians are making the most of every opportunity together on the court.
"Every single practice, every single shootaround, we are playing like we are in Athens preparing for game time," Chancellor said. "We are getting ready to go play to win a gold medal, and (on Thursday) we are going to play like we have to win a gold medal.
"This is different from any other All-Star game we've had in the WNBA. This game is for real."
A look at some of the other storylines we expect to develop on Thursday:
Lindsay Whalen is obviously deserving of her spot on the All-Star team. She's an incredible player with a bright future who already is having a standout rookie season.
But from a coaching perspective, the WNBA roster could have perhaps used another post player instead of a point guard. While Team USA has five players who can play post, only three WNBA All-Stars are posts. And even then, the tallest player, 6-foot-3 Cheryl Ford, stands at least an inch shorter than three U.S. national team members, including 6-5 Lisa Leslie, and Yolanda Griffith and Ruth Riley, who are both 6-4. Seven of Team USA's 12 player, in fact, are at least 6-1.
Therefore, look for the guard-heavy WNBA All-Stars to focus on taking away the U.S. national team's inside game and limiting three-time All-Star MVP Lisa Leslie. With three point guards and five wings, the WNBA All-Stars might try to play small ball, putting Charlotte's Allison Feaster, a reserve, at the 4.
At the other end of the court, Team USA must also focus on getting stops. They'll be facing the likes of Lauren Jackson, Elena Baranova and Janeth Arcain in Athens, and it's very important for the U.S. national team to work on its defense, too.
In typical All-Star games, coaches dole out minutes somewhat evenly. Don't expect that to be the case in New York, and Team USA's lineup and substitutions will likely be affected by a handful of existing injuries. Sheryl Swoopes is still nursing a sore foot, Diana Taurasi is still sore from a hip-pointer suffered more than a week ago, and Katie Smith has been on Minnesota's injured list since July 28 after sustaining a bruised right knee in a game against Washington four days earlier. Of note, Swoopes has said she will not back out of the Olympics. Though she said she was "50-50" on the decision in mid-July, she plans on playing in Athens. She was wearing a boot on her injured right foot last week in between games.
Because of the injuries, and because his team has had such little time together, Chancellor said his biggest concerns are Team USA's execution and chemistry. And he plans on devoting some time to those needs Thursday.
"I will play who I need to play, as much as I need to play them to get them ready for Athens," he said.
Chancellor has no idea what sort of defense Laimbeer and the WNBA All-Stars will present, but he's hoping it might be a zone.
"That's something we feel we're going to see quite a bit at the Olympics," he said.
Chemistry could also be a problem for the WNBA All-Stars, who will practice together just once before tipoff. The good news is that three Connecticut players and two teammates each from Detroit and Los Angeles help comprise the 11-member All-Star roster, so there will be some familiarity.
Laimbeer said his All-Stars "will test every part of the Olympians' games." His first objective? "We're going to start working on trap and rotation." Like we said, those words aren't usually synonymous with All-Star games.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.
Don't expect a typical All-Star game Thursday. Team USA has too much to do before Athens, and Bill Laimbeer never likes to lose.