Five burning questions for the WNBA Finals
UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- When the Detroit Shock took the court before the start of the third game of the Eastern Conference finals, the public address system blared the music from "Star Wars" that so often accompanied Darth Vader's appearances on screen.
|1||Wed., Aug. 30||at Det.||7:30 p.m.|
|2||Fri., Sept. 1||at Det.||7:30 p.m.|
|3||Sun., Sept. 3||at Sac.||4:30 p.m.|
|4*||Wed., Sept. 6||at Sac.||9 p.m.|
|5*||Sat., Sept. 9||at Det.||3:30 p.m.|
|All games on ESPN2. * -- if necessary.|
And with Bill Laimbeer at the helm of a team that always talks the talk and increasingly walks the walk, it's easy to paint the Shock as the Evil Empire in the WNBA Finals against Sacramento. Especially considering the Monarchs under mild-mannered John Whisenant seem like a plucky bunch of unappreciated stars who play in a city that's far, far away from the mainstream media galaxy (how the Maloofs fit in this analogy is up for debate although the Billy Dee Williams character does come to mind).
After beating the Sun to advance to the WNBA Finals, Laimbeer sounded like someone who, at least on the court, was perfectly ready to embrace a win-at-all-costs dark side.
"We talk to them all the time," Laimbeer said of the Monarchs. "We have good friends as coaching staffs, and we kid each other. But this is business now, and we're coming to do some business."
So whether you think it's a battle of good vs. evil, here are five things to ponder as we await the start of the final battle:
The Monarchs killed the Comets and Sparks on the glass in the first two rounds -- outrebounding their opponents by almost eight boards per game -- but the Shock are a different beast. No team has a more decisive rebounding margin than the Shock in the regular season, and they continued pulling down six more rebounds a game than either the Fever or Sun in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Yolanda Griffith and Cheryl Ford will get the headlines in the battle of the boards, but the real struggle might be won or lost off the bench. Against Connecticut, both Plenette Pierson and Kara Braxton gave the Shock valuable minutes and inside play. And on Sacramento's part, Rebekkah Brunson, who led the team in scoring in two regular-season games against Detroit, is the only reserve averaging more than 12 minutes a game in the playoffs (which is saying something given the margin of victory in three of the team's wins).
The Monarchs won't win or lose the boards based on one player -- four starters are averaging at least 5.0 rebounds in the playoffs and even point guard Ticha Penicheiro is averaging better than three per game -- but how Brunson matches up against Detroit's reserves and her own regular-season production will be worth watching.
The Sun shot 6-for-25 from behind the arc in Game 3, as the Shock actively attempted to shut down Connecticut's inside game and force the Sun to win or lose from outside. With Katie Douglas hobbled and Nykesha Sales MIA in the postseason, the plan worked to perfection.
But if the Shock challenge Nicole Powell and Kara Lawson to beat them from the outside, odds are Powell and Lawson will oblige. Together, the duo is shooting 42.5 percent (17-of-40) on 3-point attempts. They can drain them early to break open a game, and as Lawson demonstrated in Game 1 against Los Angeles, they can hit them late to wipe away 30-plus minutes of good work from an opponent.
Making life even more difficult, Ticha Penicheiro has been picking her spots, hitting 4-of-7 3-point attempts in four playoff games. Detroit might still challenge her to prove that's not an aberration -- she has shot just 19 percent from downtown the past two regular seasons -- but it has to at least weigh on Laimbeer's mind as he considers how to defend the perimeter.
All right, that's not really fair. As Katie Smith demonstrated throughout the regular season and playoffs, she completely has embraced the role of facilitator in Detroit. But the contrasting styles and backgrounds of the two lead guards should make for a fascinating duel.
Could Smith actually have to revert back to her shot-slinging Minnesota ways if the Shock are to win? After all, she was one of only three Shock players to average in double figures against the Monarchs in the regular season (along with Deanna Nolan and Ford). Few teams defend the long ball better than Sacramento (opponents shots just 30.8 percent from there in the regular season), so Smith might have to continue playing like a point guard (5.0 apg in the playoffs) and a shooting guard (8-for-20 from behind the arc in the playoffs) for another round.
Not that she lacks motivation. For Smith, who won two ABL titles with the Columbus Quest, the trip to the finals offers a longtime veteran star the same opportunity to win a WNBA championship ring that Penicheiro capitalized on last season.
"I'm very happy for Ms. Smith, sitting here next to me," Laimbeer said at the press conference after Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. "It's her first final. That's why we brought her here, to play in finals like this."
There are more choices in this matchup than perhaps ever before in a championship series. The favorites at the moment look like Nolan or Nicole Powell on the wing, and Cheryl Ford or Yolanda Griffith inside. All four have played well throughout the first two rounds, and all four have experience in the WNBA Finals.
But it's also worth watching what happens with Swin Cash and DeMya Walker. It wouldn't be difficult to find people to suggest each is the most talented player on her respective team, but neither has played like it in the first two rounds.
Walker, still coming back from maternity leave that forced her to miss the first half of the regular season, was sharp in the first round against Houston but faded in the conference finals as Griffith, Powell and Kara Lawson carried the day. Walker didn't have a standout WNBA Finals performance last season on the way to the title, but she has the blend of inside-outside skills that could help extend Detroit's interior defense and potentially get the Shock in foul trouble.
For her part, Cash needs to play like the player who established the tempo early in Game 3 of the conference finals and not like the player who appeared frustrated and out of sync in the first two games of the series. Lest we forget, it was Cash who led the Shock in scoring during the 2003 postseason that eventually resulted in a title.
The Monarchs were here just last year, but the road back was anything but easy. Overcoming the early absence of Walker, the loss of Chelsea Newton in the expansion draft, the personal tragedies that befell John Whisenant and the mysterious illness that slowed Lawson early was an accomplishment that probably didn't get the attention it deserved.
That Sacramento is back in the WNBA Finals speaks volumes about the team's maturity and chemistry.
So what does Detroit's appearance say about maturity and chemistry on that team? After Game 3 against Connecticut, Mike Thibault said a lot of people in the know think the Shock have the most talent in the league.
But they haven't always played like it.
"It's been a work in process," Laimbeer said after the game that sent the Shock to the WNBA Finals. "We were only 23 and 24 years old in '04 [as defending champions] and really didn't understand how hard we had to play. Then Swin got hurt, [and] we couldn't defend. OK, last year, Cash can't play for half the season, isn't the same person. Last year was a bad chemistry year. So you write that one off, too. This year you couldn't write off anymore. They had to step up. We had to step up as a coaching staff and prove that we were amongst the elite teams in this league.
"We had our moments this year when we backslid mentally; it's just who we are in some ways. But also, we're still very young and we've never really faced any major adversity in the school of hard knocks. Except for the last two years, which were just aberrations."
As good as the Shock looked in dispatching Connecticut on Sunday, it will be a surprise if they escape the next series without any of the mental backslides Laimbeer mentioned. And after a season of perseverance, it will be equally surprising if the Monarchs don't maintain their mental focus.
But if either happens, it could mean a championship.Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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