Backcourt lifts Shock to Game 1 win
It all seems so simple before a game begins. All the pieces are arrayed on the board, with vulnerabilities and strategies peeking out from behind the statistics.
Then the ball goes up, and the first whistle blows. And another whistle blows. And careful planning disintegrates into controlled chaos.
In a game where fouls dictated that Olympia Scott spent more time on the court for the Fever in the first half than Tamika Catchings, and the Shock spent parts of the game with more personal fouls than field goals, Bill Laimbeer's team pulled out a big road victory when Detroit's starting backcourt rose above internal and external friction to wear down the home team.
The Shock won't win the title if Cheryl Ford and Swin Cash continue to spend this much time in foul trouble (not to mention fixing the chemistry issues that at times appeared to drive a frustrated Ford to distraction), but Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith showed on Thursday that even without a true point guard, the backcourt has the potential to play championship-caliber basketball.
In both of the moments that defined the win, Smith and Nolan worked together to break Indiana's back.
First, after a Fever rally in the second quarter and a back-and-forth third quarter that had Laimbeer breaking out his most vociferous rants, Smith spotted Nolan breaking out behind a tired Tully Bevilaqua as the final seconds ticked off the clock in the third period. Nolan converted Smith's long pass into a layup with less than a second remaining, giving the Shock a three-point lead and momentum.
And in the final period, after Catchings took it upon herself to spark a rally that would have had a larger crowd bringing down the roof, it was Nolan returning the favor with a pass to Smith for a 3-pointer and a 61-54 lead with 2:01 to play.
Minutes later, as the clock wound down, Laimbeer could be overheard on the sideline saying with relief, "What a big 3-ball Katie made earlier, huh?"
For the game, Smith finished with 17 points and shot 4-for-8 from behind the arc. She also added four assists, marking just the third time all season she had at least four 3-pointers and four assists in the same game (and for anyone who doubts her inclination to step up in big games, the other two were against Connecticut). Anything but a natural at point, Smith does deserve credit for posting the most assists and fewest turnovers of any WNBA season in which she played at least 1,000 minutes.
But the real star of the night, and the author of the performance that will most frighten opposing coaches, was Nolan. Recognized as one of the league's best athletes, Nolan had hit more than half her shots just six times in 34 games before missing just twice in 11 attempts against the Fever in Game 1.
Then again, Nolan's shooting numbers in the regular season were an improvement over the last two seasons. Perhaps a reflection of a more comfortable role sharing playmaking responsibilities with Smith -- last year Nolan finished with 44 more assists than anyone else on the Shock -- she hit more than 40 percent of her shots for the first time since 2003 while coming up just one 3-point attempt shy of her career high.
Against the Fever, in addition to playing her typical suffocating defense and reducing Anna DeForge to little more than a name called out by a perplexed Brian Winters, Nolan came up big by staying in control as the game threatened to spin out of control.
The Shock won on the road despite getting just 21 combined points from Cash, Ford and Ruth Riley. That's not exactly winning with their typical blueprint. But the backcourt's ability to step up when things went sour is a development that might help write a new blueprint.
In all four of the regular-season meetings between Detroit and Indiana, the team that had the most rebounds won the game. And before this series even began, we said the battle on the boards would determine the winner. Sure enough, the Shock took a 1-0 lead after outrebounding the Fever 42-31.
But for as much as Detroit's domination of the glass was a huge X-factor, and for as much as the Shock's Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith stole the show, Indiana's inability to produce at the other end played just as big a part in Detroit's win.
At best, Indiana goes six players deep, and the Fever will not win when their starters are not knocking down shots or producing offensively (their starters shot 35 percent). Even more alarming, however, was the fact that Fever guards Tully Bevilaqua, Anna DeForge and Tan White combined for only one assist. White played just 11 minutes, but both Bevilaqua and DeForge played at least 32. Plus, the trio combined for 4-for-19 shooting from the field and 11 points. White, who averaged 8.9 ppg in the regular season, was held scoreless.
While I don't want to take anything away from Nolan and Smith, we have come to expect great games from them. Smith remains one of the sport's all-time greatest players. And it was nice to see Nolan shine. By her standards and for all her talent, she had had an average season.
But on Thursday, Nolan was marvelous. There aren't many players as athletic as she is, and when she's at the top of her game, nobody can guard her. She really tripped up Indiana, nailing some early jumpers. Then, when the Fever tried to go out and guard her, that only opened up the drive for Nolan, who slashed past them.
-- ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman
The Comets should watch the tape of Thursday's loss, but not if they still have their shoelaces. The Monarchs shouldn't watch the tape, for fear they'll start thinking they're that good (nobody is that good). And future opponents definitely shouldn't risk the psychological damage that could result from viewing the footage.
But since we all watched, anyone want to bet against the Monarchs getting back to the Finals?
Thursday's win is best savored as a remarkable exhibition of basketball execution. The Monarchs actually played too well to provide much useful insight about their short-term future, and the Comets were too out of sync to offer up much substantive evidence. But putting aside the degree of their success, the performances turned in by Kara Lawson and DeMya Walker (pictured above) should have Sacramento backers smiling broadly on Friday.
Lawson and Walker were the two pieces of last year's championship team most in flux as this season began. With Lawson slowed by a mysterious illness that robbed her of her famous energy and Walker out of the lineup after giving birth, the Monarchs struggled to a 7-7 start. But both players started to regain their form during Sacramento's second-half run, and in Thursday's game both played with a ruthless efficiency that was mighty familiar.
With Lawson as a 3-point threat (4-of-6 against the Comets) to complement Nicole Powell, and Walker (15 points and six rebounds) a post presence to complement Griffith, the Monarchs once again have an embarrassment of riches on offense.
It won't always click like it did in Game 1, but the Monarchs will sink or swim with their full arsenal.
-- ESPN.com's Graham Hays
Yolanda Griffith, Sacramento
Pick a Monarch, any Monarch (all right, maybe not Hamchetou Maiga-Ba and her five fouls in seven minutes).
Sacramento had a handful of standout performances in blowing out the Comets, but let's begin this postseason the same way last postseason ended. Yolanda Griffith was at her best right from the opening tip against Houston on Thursday, playing a big part in the early surge that quickly put the game out of reach.
Averaging just 12 points and 6.4 rebounds during the regular season, both marks career lows for the six-time All-Star and 1999 MVP who has said this is her final season, Griffith finished with 16 points and nine rebounds in the playoff opener, a 93-78 win.
A series preview in Thursday's Houston Chronicle gave the hometown team the edge at point guard, shooting guard, small forward and power forward, but even with All-Star Michelle Snow holding down the pivot for the Comets, the Chronicle ceded center to Griffith and the Monarchs. She might be nearing the end of the line, but few are betting against Griffith turning back the clock one more time in the postseason. And in a laugher to open her team's title defense, she showed why.
“I think we are all still waiting to show up for the game. We flat-out didn't get the job done on either end of the floor. ”
— Sheryl Swoopes, whose Comets suffered their worst playoff loss since a 69-48 loss to Sacramento in 2003
If there was a bright spot for the Fever on Thursday night, it probably came when Tamika Catchings picked up the Defensive Player of the Year hardware (see below) before the game.
But if forced to pick something from a very disappointing game, the play of rookie La'Tangela Atkinson ranks near the top of the list.
Forced to play early because of foul trouble for Catchings and Ebony Hoffman, Atkinson finished with a team-high 11 rebounds, including six on the offensive glass. An athletic presence who also picked up a highlight-worthy block, Atkinson played with energy and without visible signs of nerves in her first playoff game.
After bouncing in and out of the rotation during July, Atkinson came on to average just a few seconds less than 20 minutes a game in the final five games of the regular season. She isn't going to do anything to solve Indiana's offensive woes -- she scored in double figures just twice all season and turned all of those offensive rebounds into just three field-goal attempts on Thursday. But one thing the Fever looked late in the game was tired. And with Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith going off, and Swin Cash sure to play a bigger role in Game 2, Atkinson's energy and defense might prove useful in extended minutes.
For the second consecutive year, Indiana's Tamika Catchings is the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year. The Fever forward, who received 43 votes from a national panel of 56 writers and broadcasters, was presented with the award prior to Thursday's tip off.
Guard Katie Douglas of the Connecticut Sun was second with seven votes.
Catchings, Douglas, L.A.'s Lisa Leslie, Houston's Sheryl Swoopes and Indiana guard Tully Bevilaqua made up the WNBA's All-Defensive First Team, which was also announced on Thursday as the league began unveiling its annual awards.
Next up? The WNBA will announce its Most Improved Player on Saturday, followed by Coach of the Year, Rookie of the Year and the All-Rookie Team on Sunday. The league hasn't set dates for its unveiling of this season's MVP or All-WNBA teams.
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