<
>

Nolan is the key in the East finals

9/22/2009 - WNBA Indiana Fever Detroit Shock + more

Detroit is in the Eastern Conference finals again. And this time, Bill Laimbeer isn't coaching and cajoling the Shock (because he's in the NBA now). Katie Smith isn't hitting 3-pointers and playing muscle-up defense (because she's sidelined with a bad back). Eminently quotable Taj McWilliams-Franklin isn't looking for her first WNBA title (because she got that last year).

Swin Cash isn't feeling disrespected by Laimbeer (because she went to Seattle in 2008). Plenette Pierson isn't coming in as Sixth Woman Extraordinaire (because she suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the Shock's season opener). Cheryl Ford having a famous NBA dad isn't a big story anymore (because it has been told enough). Kara Braxton isn't proving to be as much a distraction as she is a contributor (because despite missing the first six games of the season while suspended after a DUI incident, she has had her best showing statistically).

All of which is to say that guard Deanna Nolan isn't being overshadowed by the fact that there's something else to focus on with regard to the Shock (because this time, no two ways about it, she is the story).

This is not to say that Nolan has been ignored or anything in the past. It's just that what the Shock have done in the past few weeks -- clinch a playoff spot and knock off Atlanta in the first round -- has been a testament to Nolan.

Her college coach at Georgia, Andy Landers, always said Nolan could be the most unstoppable player in the league when she put her mind to it. Laimbeer said much the same thing when he was coaching her. It's not that Nolan has ever been underestimated … yet perhaps she has been underappreciated.

It might be in part because she has never seemed to show much interest in cultivating "fame." She appears to approach basketball as both a joy and a job -- but not as a jumping-off spot for being a big personality in the sport. Or even being a small personality, for that matter. Nolan just isn't after glory in that sense.

Which also might help explain why Nolan has not been involved in playing for the national team. Observers often wonder about that, but it really isn't because there's a lack of recognition about Nolan's talent on the part of USA Basketball. Rather, it's because players really do have to make some significant time commitments to the program, and the organization has never felt that Nolan is truly interested in doing that.

For her part, Nolan won't come right and out say that, but she acknowledges that her overseas commitments have been her main priority. Whenever I've talked to Nolan about it, she has said she's not against playing on the national team. It's just that it's really not a goal of hers, and she has been focused on maximizing her income from basketball.

And there's nothing wrong with that; each player has to make her own decisions in that regard.

Nolan has definitely been committed, though, to winning championships in the WNBA. She has been a key part of all three Detroit titles, including as finals MVP in 2006.

But this season, what the Shock have done is so linked to Nolan's desire that this -- more than any previous one -- is the "Tweety season." Pierson was gone after the first game, Laimbeer after the first week of the season. Smith's back ailment has kept her out since Aug. 27.

So it has been up to Nolan to be the go-to player, time and again, for coach Rick Mahorn. She has gotten help, of course, including from promising rookie Shavonte Zellous and second-year player Alexis Hornbuckle. Plus, McWilliams-Franklin is still plugging away, as is Ford. And Braxton, despite her ups and downs, actually has posted slightly better numbers -- across the board -- than in any previous season.

Ultimately, though, the Shock's fate is tied to Nolan. Admittedly, she has always been at her best in the playoffs; her scoring average is consistently up in the postseason. This year, however, she also needed to be stalwart at the end of the regular season or Detroit would not have made it into the playoffs.

In the nine games Smith has been out, Nolan has averaged 22.8 points. The past two games, in the first-round playoff series against Atlanta, Nolan had 25 and 22 points. She dealt with a head knock in the first game that forced her to the bench at the end, but she still got the job done in the series-clinching game.

Now, Nolan will try to get the Shock into the WNBA Finals for the fourth year in a row. Once again, the foe will be Indiana. Can the Fever finally solve the Shock in the postseason? To do that, Indy will have to try to limit Nolan's effectiveness.

In four games against the Fever this season, Nolan had 13, 16, four and 22 points as the Shock went 1-3 against Indy. That's in chronological order -- the 22 points came Sept. 4 in a 70-63 Shock victory in overtime in Detroit.

And that's the Shock team Indy has to prepare to face. Never mind the No. 3 seed or the 18-16 record. The defending champion Shock have won 11 of their past 13 games, and Nolan is the biggest reason why.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.