SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- On Wednesday night, either Sacramento will win its second consecutive WNBA title or Detroit will pull off its biggest win of the season.
But instead of focusing on how the Shock might finally overcome their struggles at Arco Arena, win Game 4 and force the WNBA Finals back to Detroit, the spotlight here Tuesday unfortunately fell once again on Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer.
Fined by the league on Tuesday for criticizing the officiating during the Shock's Game 3 loss to the Monarchs, Laimbeer is toeing the fine line between motivating his team and becoming a distraction. For the past 4½ seasons, Laimbeer's confident swagger has carried over to his players, and no one in their locker room seemed to care if the aplomb was perceived as arrogance elsewhere. But right now, the Shock are not as united in that locker room as they should be.
Down 2-1 in the WNBA Finals, this is the time you want your team to pull together and rally. You want everyone on the same page. And while every coach has different tactics, Laimbeer really risked alienating his players by calling them out on a handful of occasions over the course of the playoffs.
Laimbeer has worn a live microphone throughout the postseason. Laimbeer, part of the Detroit Pistons' "Bad Boys" who won NBA championships in 1989 and 1990, has never been one to bite his tongue, and much of his in-game commentary has been terrifically entertaining and insightful and made for great TV.
But it also means anyone tuned into ESPN2 could have overheard such personal comments as Laimbeer telling his assistants that Shock star Cheryl Ford "brought the attitude tonight," which occurred earlier this postseason. Then, on Sunday in Game 3, Laimbeer said center Ruth Riley was "overmatched." According to the Associated Press, Laimbeer also said guard Deanna Nolan "floated" despite her game-high 22 points, and claimed the Shock "lost our brain at times."
While Detroit has displayed some great individual performances in the Finals, the Shock have lost some bad games and are fragile at the moment. Knowing Laimbeer, these comments are intended to fire up his team, but a coach also can lose his players in these crucial times. We've said all along that Detroit is the most emotional team in the league.
Laimbeer came down pretty hard on Riley and Ford. But with all due respect to Laimbeer, they aren't the players who haven't been giving it their all. I have to imagine neither player is thrilled with Laimbeer's comments, and I suspect Riley will not be in Detroit a year from now.
Will she start Wednesday? It's unlikely Laimbeer will change much. More than anything, Detroit just needs to regroup mentally. And if there's one team that will have benefited from three days off, it's Detroit. Sacramento is so deep that the Monarchs just wanted to get out and play and finish off the finals.
But the Shock are not nearly as well-rested. While two Sacramento starters played fewer than 20 minutes in Game 3, Detroit's Deanna Nolan has played nearly every minute of the Finals, averaging 37.7 minutes per game, and Katie Smith is averaging almost 36.
Now, if Detroit wants to extend the series, someone other than Ford, Nolan and Katie Smith need to step up.
Still, I think Sacramento will close out the series on Wednesday. That's not to say Detroit can't pull off the upset, but to do so, the Shock would have to play a perfect game.
While Smith has done a valiant job of playing point guard this season, Detroit's lack of a true point has hurt, particularly in this series. Sacramento's suffocating white-line defense -- which John Whisenant has taken three years to fully implement -- is very hard to beat. The Monarchs swarm the ball, and to beat them you need someone to penetrate quickly to the basket and then make a kick-out pass to a player like Smith; then you're going to get open looks. But Smith is not the type of player to beat you off the dribble.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Nancy coached the Shock from 1998-2001. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.