- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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SAN ANTONIO -- When Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer traded for Katie Smith in July 2005, he figured he was getting a player who would fit a role well for at least another year or so.
He could tell she was tough-minded, a fierce competitor, the kind of player who would adapt quickly to his coaching style. What he acknowledges now, though, is he didn't expect that three years later, Smith would be in the best shape of her life and basically the MVP of the WNBA Finals.
Because if Sunday's Game 3 (ESPN2, 4:30 p.m. ET) goes the way the first two did, Smith definitely should win that award. She led the Shock to a 69-61 victory Friday night, disappointing a crowd of 16,012 at the AT&T Center.
Smith had team highs of 22 points and six assists, plus five rebounds. In a game in which the Silver Stars kept trying to climb back after falling behind big, Smith was the one who kept slamming the door in their faces.
"She is second to none in her physique, her stamina and her desire," Laimbeer said. "There is nobody else in this league that can beat her."
San Antonio certainly hasn't been able to do that. Smith had 25 points -- a career playoff high for her -- in the opener Wednesday. Now the teams head to the Detroit area, where Game 3 will be played Sunday at Eastern Michigan in Ypsilanti.
"Katie Smith has just been killing us," San Antonio's Becky Hammon said. "So we're going to have to find a solution for her."
It's probably asking a bit much of a team depleted at guard because of injuries to "solve" the Katie Smith dilemma. Having Helen Darling and Edwige Lawson-Wade out has hurt the Silver Stars on both ends of the court.
They are not there to help combat the withering effectiveness of Smith and Deanna Nolan (12 points Friday) from the perimeter, nor can they provide just that little bit of perimeter offense the Silver Stars need to aid Hammon.
Erin Buescher scored just one point Friday and missed her three shots from the field. When the Shock collapsed on Hammon, Buescher was open but gun-shy.
Detroit's Kara Braxton came through big with 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting. She and Taj McWilliams-Franklin (nine points) were strong defensively, helping hold Sophia Young to 11 points on 5-for-18 shooting.
So most of the offensive load was left to Hammon again, and her 24 points were padded by the three desperation 3-pointers she made in the last 3½ minutes of the game.
By that point, it already felt like the contest was over. And for all practical purposes, it was.
But the game had seemed "over" earlier. The night got off to a very poor start for San Antonio. Unlike in the first game, the Silver Stars did come out energetic. However
"The problem was, we didn't make any shots," Hammon said. "Life is difficult when they're shooting 80 percent and we're shooting 5 percent, or whatever it was."
It wasn't that bad, but it felt like it. Six minutes into the game, the Silver Stars were down 19-2. They still trailed by 13 at the end of the first quarter.
The second period, however, was when San Antonio showed some of the team that won more games than any other during the regular season. The Silver Stars outscored the Shock 16-10 and brought the crowd alive again.
"I was glad we had a cushion," Smith said of San Antonio's comeback. "You get a little worried. But I remember a time I was smiling and was like, 'Here we go again.'
"It's like in a sense we've been in this position quite a bit this year. And I think we have a lot of confidence. You have to keep grinding and playing. They'll have their runs. Just be patient; we'll get ours."
San Antonio trailed by seven points at halftime but did finally tie the score and then take the lead, twice, late in the third quarter. And still there was no panic from the Shock, and especially not from Smith.
"I expect so much from Katie," Laimbeer said. "And this is two games in a row where I actually had to compliment her on [going] above and beyond the call of duty. She played phenomenal. Once again, in two games in a row, her will to win the game is what carried us."
When Smith came to Detroit from Minnesota in what has to be the worst trade in WNBA history -- Smith for Chandi Jones and Stacey Thomas -- she had been dealing with a knee injury that required surgery and kept her from being in very good shape.
Laimbeer said he was blunt, as usual, with Smith after the 2005 season.
"We had an exit interview, and I said, 'Katie, I need you to come back 15 to 20 pounds lighter,'" Laimbeer said. "I need you to be a leader with the ball. This is what I expect of you, and this is what I need from you.'
"You don't have to tell her twice. Once you tell her, she understands it. You tell her a second time, and she gets mad."
Smith came back in 2006 just as Laimbeer requested. She helped lead the Shock to the franchise's second WNBA title and then was on the runner-up team in 2007. She made her third Olympic squad this season and now is on the verge of another WNBA championship.
Seattle guard Sue Bird was in San Antonio to receive all-WNBA honors Friday. And after the game, she marveled at how well Smith, her Olympic teammate, had played.
"She's always been a great player," Bird said. "You think about her years at Minnesota -- she was always the go-to player. With Detroit, it's a better team, so she doesn't necessarily have to do that as much.
"But tonight, she did. She's so experienced, and more than anything, she's so strong. Oh, my gosh, defensively, she can guard all positions. And to go against her? I mean, a lot of times she's playing point guard, and I'd say she outweighs 80-90 percent of the point guards in this league by 20 pounds. And it's pure muscle. In USA Basketball, having to go against her -- nobody wants to do it. She wears you out."
That's what she has been doing to the Silver Stars, and she's not going to let up.
"She is so focused on every aspect of the basketball game," Laimbeer said. "Whether it's defense, when she has to switch over to Hammon, or whether it's guarding the post. Or running the show at the 1 or playing 2 or 3 and looking to be the scorer."
Laimbeer said he had to laugh a little after the game, watching the way Smith strolled away from her TV interview as if she'd be happy to go another 40 minutes.
"You can see what great shape she is in," he said. "She's just walking like she knows exactly what she's doing right now."
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a game in which the Silver Stars kept trying to climb back after falling behind big, Katie Smith was the one to keep slamming the door in their faces. And if Detroit wins the title, Smith might just be the WNBA Finals MVP.