Looking a lot like Laimbeer, Shock dig in for win
UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Whether Bill Laimbeer is the best coach in the WNBA is up for debate, but he is unquestionably the biggest coach in the league. Few would argue that he also lays claim to top honors in volume, bombast and swagger.
And because Laimbeer got the Shock to play Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals exactly like their head coach lives his basketball life, the Shock are going to the WNBA Finals for the second time in Laimbeer's tenure after beating the Connecticut Sun 79-55 Sunday in a game that was exactly as close as the score suggests.
"Detroit played like they're supposed to play," Sun coach Mike Thibault said after the game. "They don't always do that."
In a game that meant everything to both teams, the Sun simply couldn't match the Shock in aggressiveness on either end of the court.
"This team makes me look good every now and then," said Laimbeer, who got plenty of help on the sidelines from assistant coach and fellow tailoring retirement fund Rick Mahorn. "It was a very fun and enjoyable experience to be associated with them today. You could tell from the locker room before the game started we were focused and ready to play basketball."
Maybe it had something to do with Detroit's head start.
Two hours before Sunday's game at Mohegan Sun Arena, Laimbeer and Mahorn, dressed in shorts and working up more of a sweat than their players, put Detroit's five post players through a shooting drill. Time and again, Cheryl Ford, Swin Cash, Ruth Riley, Kara Braxton and Plenette Pierson took passes on the block and spun off Mahorn before going up and over Laimbeer for layups.
While the Shock coaches weren't the tallest obstacles the players would face on the court -- both former NBA standouts stand shorter than 7-foot-2 Connecticut center Margo Dydek -- each offered almost as much circumference as the Sun's entire starting frontcourt.
The point of the exercise was to get each player to commit to her post move and take the ball strong to the hole. And while it wasn't much more intense than most pregame drills, the message seemed to get across. Indeed, at one point, Laimbeer jokingly accused Ford of trying to take his head off after a particularly aggressive approach (at least, he was probably joking).
"We've done that every game all year, it's a good way for us to warm up," Riley said after the game. "We've got a pretty tall frontcourt, so we've got to utilize our strength in there. It's fun to battle against them; we know they're going to push us around a little bit."
Arrogance and aggressiveness often get muddled when it comes to the Shock, but this time the swagger stemmed from on-court energy and not merely a sense of entitlement.
Whether it was post players duplicating what they did in that pregame drill, or Katie Smith and Deanna "Tweety" Nolan relentlessly pushing the ball up against Sun defenders who seemed surprised that an opponent would try to run after made baskets, the Shock seized an early lead and never gave the Sun a chance to catch their breath.
"You know, Katie and Tweety -- all our guards -- they push the ball," Cash said. "That's our game, to get out in transition. And they push the ball on everyone. Connecticut obviously is a great team, but we wanted it today. We weren't going to be denied."
No moment summed up the night more succinctly than Ford swatting Taj McWilliams-Franklin's last-second shot into the first row of the stands to end the third quarter, with Shock reserves almost beating the buzzer in swarming onto the court to greet the posturing post.
The Shock were aggressive from the top of the starting lineup to the end of the bench, but perhaps no contributions were more valuable, or more unexpected, in the decisive first half than those made by Cash and Braxton.
A frequent target of Laimbeer's decibels throughout the playoffs, and an ever more frequent target of his substitutions, Cash came out and played like she intended to get everything she could out of whatever minutes the coach gave her.
Even in missing her first shot, a layup she put hard off the glass on Detroit's first possession, Cash was more aggressive than she was in Game 1. In the first two minutes alone, she added a defensive rebound, an assist and a personal foul to her line and then tacked on a 15-foot jumper soon after. By the time the first quarter was over, the Shock had a five-point lead and Cash had 10 points -- equaling her combined total from the series' first two games.
"It's just trying to set a tone for the team," Cash said after the game. "I understand I'm an energy player, and if I come out and set a tone early our team kind of feeds off of that."
Then it was Braxton's turn.
When pressed, and while resting their lungs from booing, most fans would have to admit that the Shock are by and large a team that plays extraordinarily hard. Few players bang like Ford, and Nolan and Cash take beatings on a nightly basis with lithe frames that belie their strength. But Braxton is an enigma, at times looking like the league's next great post player and at times reminding us of the player who drove Andy Landers to distraction at Georgia.
Braxton seems to smile more and derive more fun out of being a pro basketball player than almost anyone else in the league, but on this night she was all business on the court.
With Cash cooling and Nolan drawing treatment for an injury between periods, Braxton took over the second quarter. While still mixing in a mysterious choice on an 18-foot jumper that had Laimbeer motioning like he wanted to throttle either Braxton or himself, she scored on a variety of aggressive moves and even added a beautiful interior assist on a pass through traffic to Plenette Pierson.
At one point, Braxton caught the ball in the post with Dydek on her back. Without hesitating, she turned and threw a wicked elbow into Dydek's stomach, creating enough space to hit the layup. A stunned Dydek just looked at the official for help. Hey, if they let you do it, it's not a foul. It was a move right out of a certain playbook.
"They helped us a lot," Braxton said of the impact of Laimbeer and Mahorn. "I mean, they were the Bad Boys of the NBA, and they brung it over, and now we're the Bad Girls of the WNBA. We've got two post coaches, and so they helped us every day."
By the time Riley tipped out an offensive rebound on Detroit's first possession of the second half, only to get the ball back at the top of the key for a jumper that extended the lead to 11 points, you could sense the Sun knew their fate.
The Shock aren't always fun to watch if you aren't already a loyal fan of the team. They play a physical brand of basketball and still act aggrieved when calls invariably go against them. They talk and they smirk, and they carry themselves with a championship-sized attitude.
But they also do what they do better than you do what you do. Just like their coach.
And if they keep doing exactly what Laimbeer preaches, they might just get the second set of rings they think they deserve.Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.