- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Detroit Shock (17-17), East No. 3
What's working: In their wins this past week at Connecticut and over Indiana, the Liberty played with a sense of urgency they hadn't demonstrated since the All-Star break, and the stars really came through. Becky Hammon (above) had a season-high 28 points in an OT win over the Fever, while Crystal Robinson netted 22 points on a season-high tying four 3-pointers as New York nipped the Sun to clinch a playoff bid.
Beating Connecticut on the road speaks volumes about how refocused New York is. The Liberty's shooting is equally impressive. They hit 9 of 19 3-pointers (47.4 percent) and shot 52.8 percent from the field at Mohegan Sun. Against Indiana, New York shot 47.1 percent (8 of 17) from downtown.
While Hammon, Robinson and Vickie Johnson get the headlines, Elena Baranova has also been important. Entering the season she was expected to be a role player, but injuries forced her into a starting spot. She's not the greatest defender, but her intelligence and offense are essential. Baranova, who had 23 points in that win over Indiana and an impressive double-double in Sunday's regular-season finale, averages 11.5 ppg.
New York's ability to play in the halfcourt offense also is a huge plus. In the playoffs, opponents often look to take away the running game. So it's imperative to execute in the halfcourt, and you can do it if you have shooters. The Liberty have the second-best 3-point shooting trio in the league and are very comfortable in the halfcourt.
What's working: The Shock are just relentless on the boards and boast the best rebounding average (34.5 per game, which is 3.4 more than their opponents) in the league. Detroit also is very balanced -- three players average at least 10 points -- which is one reason the Shock have been able to overcome losing leading scorer Swin Cash to a torn ACL.
Like New York, one of Detroit's best strengths is its ability to score in the halfcourt when it needs to. Though the Shock prefer to run and push tempo, they have the luxury of having a natural post in Ruth Riley (above), who is a great passer and helps Detroit move the ball around well and get some open looks on the perimeter.
It also helps that the Shock have a really terrific and often underrated point guard in Elaine Powell, who is consistent and playing solid ball.
Defense is also a plus, and Detroit uses it to generate points. The Shock were struggling against the Sting on Sunday but pulled out the win after tightening up their defense and getting up and down the floor. Chandi Jones had two key steals, which the Shock turned into easy layups. Getting out in transition helps them quite a bit and can be deadly for the opponent.
What needs work: First off, New York deserves a lot of credit for coming this far after losing Tari Phillips and Ann Wauters -- two of the top frontcourt starters in the league -- to injuries. But now, New York must establish some sort of inside presence to open up the outside shot, especially since everybody knows New York can live and die by the 3-pointer.
Bethany Donaphin, a second-year player, only averages five points, but somebody has to step up in the paint and produce.
New York also must focus on rebounding to take away possessions from the opponent. The Liberty especially need to get on the offensive glass.
What needs work: Detroit doesn't have much depth. Before Cash went out, only two reserves averaged more than 15 minutes. Though Detroit has some depth at the post with Barbara Farris and Iciss Tillis, Riley and Ford must stay out of foul trouble and play smart at the defensive end.
Patience can be another problem area. Detroit prefers to get the ball and go and isn't used to playing a slowed-down game.
But in the playoffs, teams try to take away the run, and the Shock need to recognize that and not take quick shots that lead to break-out baskets for the opponent.
X-factor: New York is doing a fantastic job of executing its offense and getting after it defensively. The Liberty really took away the Sun's strengths, particularly their ability to run, and forced Connecticut to keep the ball on one side of the floor or into poor shot selection.
And though this might not seem that important, don't think for a minute that the Liberty aren't enjoying being back at Madison Square Garden. The Radio City experience went well, but it's always good to be back home.
New York will be successful if it can keep the score low, ideally in the mid-60s or low-70s. The Liberty will run when it's available but will grind it out and look to be physical on defense. They must also get on the boards and limit second- and third-chance points.
X-factor: With Cash out, Deanna Nolan must continue to take over Detroit's big responsibilities at both ends of the floor. She played all 40 minutes against Charlotte on Sunday.
Detroit must continue doing what it does best -- running when it can, generating points off its defense, using its athleticism and running the offense through Riley.
And don't underestimate Detroit's pride. Yes, this is a physical team, but the Shock also have a lot of pride and passion. And as a result, the Shock enter the postseason riding a three-game winning streak.
How they match up: Expect Detroit to try and take advantage of New York's lack of a legitimate post presence. This is the biggest mismatch between the two teams, and the Shock have the weapons to really use that against the Liberty. Either Riley will dominate inside, or they can use her to create opportunities for her teammates. If, for example, New York tries to double team Riley, Detroit's opposite post -- Ford or Farris -- should run to the front of the rim, which will force the Liberty's weak-side guard to rotate over. That, of course, leaves Detroit the freedom to have a shooter in the corner with a pretty good look at the basket. In this case, Nolan will probably get that opportunity, which is all the more reason she must continue to play big.
Hammon (57 3-pointers), Baranova (53) and Robinson (55) have combined for 165 3-pointers this season, and along with Johnson, must continue to keep hitting those shots and have a big series.
But for as good as the Liberty are from downtown, it won't be easy -- and again, New York's youth and inexperience at the post hurts. Detroit won't have to double-down inside, which means the Shock, who are long and athletic, should be able to contest the Liberty's shots better than some opponents.
New York and Detroit split the season series with both teams sweeping on its home courts.
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.
Ruth Riley will help Detroit dominate the paint, but can the Shock neutralize New York's 3-point threats?