- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Talked to a former WNBA player earlier this week about the injury factor in the league. She told me that three-plus months of WNBA play take more of a toll on players' bodies than a whole year overseas would.
"Right now," she said, "even the 'healthy' players are sore. Everyone's body is aching."
Which is not to disparage how the game is played in foreign leagues, but rather to point out just how grueling it is in the WNBA. Having a game about every three days, the travel and the physical nature of play mean getting through the WNBA season is like running the gantlet.
The first game of the 2009 playoffs showcased this. Detroit has guard Katie Smith, last year's WNBA Finals MVP, on the bench likely for the duration of the season with bulging disks in her back. Atlanta is without point guard Shalee Lehning, who got in a freight-train collision with Washington's Lindsey Harding over a loose ball on Saturday. Lehning got the worst of it, suffering a separated shoulder and ending her season.
With Smith out since Aug. 27, Deanna Nolan has had to carry even more of a load for Detroit. It was no different Wednesday, as the Shock rallied for a 94-89 victory over Atlanta. But
Nolan had to spend the closing seconds of the game on the bench, appearing dizzy and ill. It looked like "Tweety" -- Nolan's nickname for years -- was seeing imaginary little Tweety birds flying around her head.
She hit the floor hard when fouled going to the basket, and then about a minute later slumped against the basket stanchion in tears after being fouled again. She had to leave the game, but it was Detroit's night: Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors strangely picked reserve Crystal Kelly to take Nolan's free throws. Kelly, a career 85 percent free throw shooter, made both and it helped hold off Atlanta.
Nolan has two days for her noggin to be judged good to go as the No. 3 seed Shock look to eliminate No. 2 seed Atlanta on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET).
Nolan scored 25 points, leading Detroit back from being down as much as 18 points against Atlanta. Which is nothing new for the Shock, considering they did a similar thing to Chicago in their last game -- which was the regular-season finale for Detroit. The Shock were down as many as 19 against the Sky, but came back to win 80-69 Saturday behind 20 points from rookie Shavonte Zellous, 19 from Nolan and 14 from Kara Braxton.
And who led the way Wednesday against the Dream? The same trio, plus Alexis Hornbuckle, who was back in the lineup after a hamstring injury kept her out of the previous game.
The 6-foot-6 Braxton, who perpetually inspires adjectives such as "inconsistent" and "enigmatic," was the "good Kara" on Wednesday. She had 16 points and seven rebounds, and executed a coast-to-coast layup in the third quarter that showed off her latent guard skills and, honestly, made me shout, "Holy moly, did she really just do that?" That basket also gave the Shock their first lead since early in the first quarter.
Hornbuckle, who was a bigger factor in last season's Shock championship than was always obvious by just looking at stats, had a terrific stat line Wednesday: 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting, 5 rebounds and 5 assists. She played almost 37 minutes, which is pretty gutsy for someone with a sore hamstring. And it was very much needed since Smith is out.
Zellous had 12 points and continues with a fine rookie season. Cheryl Ford, who has battled knee problems all year, had eight points and a very Ford-like 10 rebounds. And you know Nikki Teasley had to be fired up for this matchup; she was cut by the Dream after 10 games this season. She had nine points.
As for Atlanta, it's not as if the Dream played poorly; they shot 45.5 percent from the floor and outrebounded Detroit 34-29. But the absence of Lehning hurt. The Dream rely on getting up and down the floor and converting high-percentage shots, and Lehning -- even as a rookie -- excels at setting up her teammates for that. She is a very good leader and strong presence on the court despite her youth, and you could see the Dream missed her.
Chamique Holdsclaw returned for the first time after having arthroscopic knee surgery on Aug. 25, but she was a shadow of her usual self with three points and three rebounds.
Iziane Castro Marques led four Dream players in double figures with 25 points, and rookie of the year candidate Angel McCoughtry had 21. But it wasn't enough. And it means Atlanta now has its back to the wall Friday. Such is the nature of a three-game series.
And once again, the injury factor will be huge. Will Nolan be able to play? If not, can Detroit actually win a game without both her and Smith? Rick Mahorn -- whom I considered for coach of the year, although I voted for Meadors -- said that he expects Nolan back.
But we'll see. One thing's for sure: Seeing Nolan at the end of the game confirmed what a hard-knock life it can be in the WNBA -- even when you win.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
In a series in which injuries already had sidelined several stars, Game 1's ending should have been no surprise. After scoring 25 points to lead Detroit's 94-89 rally past Atlanta, Deanna Nolan left the game, dizzy and ill.