Detroit not done yet
DETROIT -- The Detroit Shock players were standing on the cliff's edge Tuesday, whether they quite realized it or not. In a season of almost-but-not-quite, the Shock had lost a double-digit lead at home and were trailing New York by three points with 9 seconds left.
Welcome to the world of the league's defending champion.
It was a year ago this week that the Shock finished their worst-to-first title run, winning the last game of the WNBA finals over Los Angeles before a sellout crowd at the Palace at Auburn Hills. The game and the atmosphere was a critical boost for the franchise -- and, in fact, the league.
Now, because of the Olympic break, the schedule is pushed back a month. It's the final few days of the regular season, with a mad dash to make the playoffs.
And in the Eastern Conference this week, everyone knew anything could happen. On Tuesday, it looked like the worst was about to happen for the Shock.
Coach Bill Laimbeer said this year's problems were players not fully realizing how difficult it is to repeat success, a search for chemistry and a battle against injuries. The Shock's leading scorer, Swin Cash, went down with a torn left ACL against Phoenix on Sept. 11. The way Cash produces, her being out of the picture made it seem the Shock were even more running uphill.
There was no full house Tuesday in the Palace. But 7,077 on a school night for a 15-17 team -- minus one of its superstars -- wasn't really that bad. And for a while, the Shock gave the fans what they wanted. Detroit led by as much as 13 in the first half, going into the locker room up 42-33.
The Olympian Cash, wearing a leg brace over her jeans, hobbled to the huddles, then over to do a TV interview. Sometimes when a player is hurt and knows it's over for the season, you can tell she no longer really feels a part of the team. Her facial expression as she sits on the bench during games even becomes a bit "removed."
With Cash, that isn't the case. Her game face Tuesday looked no different than if she'd been suited up, waiting to run in. She yelled, she clutched her fists, she was totally invested.
Cash has a long, difficult road of rehabilitation ahead, as anyone in the dreaded ACL club knows. But for now, she's thinking mostly of how she can still be a part of the Shock.
"Bill said that she's going to be the best 'player-coach' ever," Detroit's Cheryl Ford said. "She cheered us on tonight and was in our faces when we messed up. She was there for us emotionally."
With Cash out, more is expected from rookies Iciss Tillis and Chandi Jones.
"They're coming along," said Ford, who was the league's rookie of the year last season. "They make mistakes, but that's part of being a rookie."
On Tuesday, it was Tillis who had more of an impact on the game, playing 22 minutes with eight points, five rebounds and five assists.
Tillis got an earful from Laimbeer a couple of times. At one juncture, New York's pesky guard Becky Hammon knocked the ball away from Tillis and out of bounds. Laimbeer cautioned Tillis about dribbling against the zone. Seconds later, Tillis put the ball on the floor again, and this time did get picked.
"Arrrrgh!" Laimbeer said, turning his back to the floor. "Didn't I just tell her not to dribble!"
So some helpful fans behind the Shock bench, doing their part, yelled at Tillis the next time down, "ICISS, HE SAID NOT TO DRIBBLE!"
For her part, Tillis wore the "I really DON'T want to goof up" expression so familiar for rookies. But Tillis showed some of the very skills that did make her an outstanding player at times while at Duke. Tillis can make big steals and big shots.
And Tillis wasn't the only one getting screamed at. Laimbeer wanted Elaine Powell to take charge earlier in setting up plays. He wanted Ruth Riley to shoot. And shoot. And shoot.
"[Blankety-blank], Ruth, shoot it!" Laimbeer hollered in the first half.
Fans: "RUTH, HE SAID TO SHOOT IT!"
"I think I was just making bad decisions," the Olympian Riley said later, and she did listen. She was 2-of-5 from the floor in the first half, 5-for-9 in the second.
Merlakia Jones was shooting, but not hitting anything. Deanna Nolan can sling-shot to the basket so quickly that, when she's really on her game, she's almost unguardable. But on this night, she wasn't showing the patience that Laimbeer was pleading for.
And Ford ... well, frankly, she wasn't doing anything wrong. She was making shots inside when she had them, grabbing every rebound she had a prayer of getting and helping thwart the Liberty's inside game.
Still, New York had rallied behind Hammon and Crystal Robinson. Hammon gave the Liberty a one-point lead on two free throws with 44.3 seconds left. Then Nolan missed a runner, and the Shock sent Robinson to the line. She made both, and the thought had to flash through the minds of the Shock and their fans.
Here we go again.
Lake Jones put up a 24-footer that missed. But who was there for the rebound? Ford, of course. And instead of panicking, she waited ... about 3 seconds ... and then zipped a pass to Nolan just beyond the 3-point arc.
You remember the big 3-pointer Nolan made in Game 3 vs. the Sparks last year? There are just some players who always seem to hit those kinds of shots.
Nolan sank one again Tuesday.
"Finally," Laimbeer said, "something went right for us."
It got the Shock to overtime, and there Detroit had all the momentum and won 82-71. Now, Detroit has one regular-season game left: at home Sunday against Charlotte. If Detroit wins, it's back in the playoffs. A combination of other results could also make that happen if the Shock lose, but Detroit obviously wants to take care of business itself.
And if Detroit does indeed make the playoffs ...
"We're a team nobody wants to play," Laimbeer said.
Riley said she's feeling very fresh, that her Olympic experience was energizing, not draining.
"When you're on such a high, winning the gold medal, you come back and you feel lucky," Riley said. "Most everybody had that month off, but I got to play in a high-level environment and came back ready to go."
Lake Jones, in her eighth year in the WNBA, and Powell, a sixth-year veteran, provide a lot of leadership. Riley has as good a touch as any big woman. Nolan can fly. Ford is consistently top-notch. And Cash will try to motivate them.
It has been a crazy, logjam season in the Eastern Conference. As for why, Ford just shook her head.
"I have no idea," she said. "But it's good for us. Because we're still in it."Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.