Commentary

Hammon's heroics, 35 points lift Silver Stars to WNBA Finals

Originally Published: September 28, 2008
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Something seemed inevitable about Sunday's decisive game of the Western Conference finals. And it wasn't that San Antonio would win.

Yes, the Silver Stars had taken Game 2 on Saturday with Sophia Young's ballet-like buzzer-beater. There was the understandable rush of euphoria for the players and fans … but the celebration had to be short-lived.

After all, the series was only tied. The Los Angeles Sparks, perhaps more than any other WNBA team, seemed equipped to absorb the disappointment and come back out Sunday swinging. So to speak.

And the Sparks did that. In fact, after Shannon Bobbitt's 3-pointer in the third quarter put L.A. up by eight points, that first big wave of inevitability came. The Sparks were going to win the game and the series. They had too much firepower inside, too much length, smarts and athleticism on defense, too much Candace Parker.

Just as had been the case for Texas A&M, then LSU, then Stanford in the NCAA Tournament earlier this year, the Silver Stars would, in the end, be quashed by the Parker steamroller. She would find a way and lead the way, just as she had with Tennessee.

Shock picking up momentum

You know that notion that true shooters will never -- and should never -- stop shooting? Just look at the Detroit Shock as a great example. Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith aren't always "on." But they are always shooters.

And Sunday, as has been the case so many times with these two stars, they were the key factors in Detroit turning a seven-point deficit against New York at the end of three quarters into a 64-55 victory. Nolan had 22 points and Smith 11.

The Shock forced Game 3 of the East finals, and did it in a way that turned the momentum strongly back toward Detroit.

Because this wasn't just a must-have victory. It was a game in which the Shock got their personality back, thanks to the return of Plenette Pierson from a shoulder injury suffered in the first round against Indiana.

Having Pierson on the court again really made the Shock seem like the confident and tough team that Detroit definitely wasn't in the Game 1 loss at New York.

Pierson finished with 10 points and four rebounds, and it's no coincidence that her return meant a downgrade in the Liberty offense's effectiveness inside. Pierson comes off the bench to make a Shock defense that is usually already pretty good even better.

In the last quarter, though, Nolan was especially a force that the Liberty just couldn't stop as she had nine points. Smith made just one shot from the field in the fourth quarter, but the timing of it meant a great deal.

Her 3-pointer with 4:22 left in the game put Detroit up by five points and just had that "crusher" feel to it. Even though there was still plenty of time left for the Liberty to come back, New York scored just once after that Smith basket.

Pierson played through pain on Sunday, but said she still intends to compete in Game 3. And Nolan and Smith? They'll keep shooting. They always do.

-- Mechelle Voepel

The Silver Stars came back … but then so did the inevitable feeling about L.A. With 1 minute, 57 seconds left in the game, San Antonio's Becky Hammon missed a 3-pointer and fouled Temeka Johnson. She made both free throws, and the Sparks were up by five points.

L.A. was going to the WNBA finals. It was inevitable.

And then it all changed. Like someone had just changed a channel, it was suddenly a different contest. The Silver Stars closed out the game and the series with a 9-0 run that gave the franchise a 76-72 win and its first WNBA Finals appearance. And seven of those points were from Hammon.

It has been a fascinating year for Hammon, an immensely popular player whose decision to play for Russia in the Olympics raised her already high profile in both positive and negative ways. Whether you agreed or disagreed with Hammon's choice, it was clear that her commitment to her Olympic team was like everything else she has done in basketball: 100 percent.

Hammon has formed a special bond with her San Antonio teammates and the fans in the Alamo City in her two seasons there. But it's a moment from her days in New York -- at the beginning of them, in fact -- that flashed through my mind at the end of Sunday's game.

It was her rookie season, 1999, and I was at Madison Square Garden for a Liberty game, after which Hammon was one of the designated autograph-signers. For some reason, I even recall that she was wearing a yellow suit, a South Dakotan looking like she actually was at home in the Big Apple.

Because the ABL players came into the league then, the draft of 1999 is a bit misleading in regard to the fact that Hammon wasn't picked. That said, even without that influx of already-pro talent, it seemed certain that Hammon was going to be -- at least initially -- underestimated.

Still, her college career at Colorado State had shown that she was a pure shooter -- the kind of scorer the WNBA needed to have more of -- and I thought that day, "I hope this kid actually gets a real chance in this league."

So here we are nearly a decade later, and Hammon had the biggest game of her career at a time when it meant the world to have it. But at that 1:57 mark, her performance appeared to be one that would be remembered as one of those great games that went for naught.

Then at 1:45, Young got a layup. Hammon blocked Johnson's layup at the other end. Back on offense, Hammon sort of pushed and Johnson sort of fell on her own, and with that Hammon had more than enough daylight to swish her sixth 3-pointer of the afternoon.

Just as she had done in Game 2, Hammon made a clutch long-range shot. Even so, the game was still tied and the Sparks had the ball. But the wrong L.A. player, Johnson, took the next shot. The flaw with this great, three-Olympian Sparks team has been that its guard play wasn't consistent.

And as a result, the wrong people took the wrong shots more often than they should have on a team that has such a dynamic inside game.

Most of the time, the Sparks still overcame this problem. But it was the very thing that helped sink them in the final minute of their final game of 2008.

Well, that and Hammon, of course. In the last 36 seconds, Parker committed two fouls, both of which sent Hammon to the line. She made all four, giving her a career-high 35 points. Hammon also led her team with seven rebounds.

Remember this about Parker, who seemed on the verge of going for her third major championship of 2008 (in addition to the NCAA title and the Olympic gold medal): She has played with an injured shoulder all year. There has been no time to rest, no letup in responsibility. The fact that she won't play in the WNBA Finals takes nothing away, really, from a magnificent year for her.

But this time, the force of inevitability was actually with Becky Hammon.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.