- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Watching the Sacramento Monarchs play basketball is a little like watching a Woody Allen movie; look away for a second and a whole new collection of stars might be on the court when you look back. But for all the substitutions and all the lineup variations, the chemistry simply works.
In embarrassing Detroit 95-71 on Wednesday in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, the Monarchs -- who set a Finals record for points scored by the winning team -- showed once again that they aren't 10 role players splitting time; they're 10 starters playing roles.
But balance is a delicate thing to maintain, whether you're balancing a lot or a little on both sides of the scales, and it took the return of DeMya Walker and Kara Lawson for the team to recapture its championship form. Lawson and Walker combined for 39 points against the Shock, but their contribution runs much deeper than one spotlight performance.
When Sacramento's season opened without Walker (pregnancy) and Lawson (illness), the Monarchs still took the court with an eight- or nine-player rotation as good as any team in the league. Erin Buescher's increased production, which eventually led to her winning most improved player honors, was the best example of Sacramento's healthy players adjusting their production to the roles required.
But it wasn't their rotation; it wasn't the team John Whisenant crafted to play his brand of basketball.
It was a script being played out without a complete cast, a series of outstanding performances marred by the deafening silences where key lines went unspoken.
Without Walker and Lawson, the Monarchs were still a good team, but they were distinctly out of balance. Unfortunately, when you're the defending champs, you both earn the right and face the pressure of being measured only against your previous perfection. But for the Monarchs, the middle of the season was more about survival.
"We had to fight to win," Whisenant said. "Our goals, we told them: Stay in the hunt, try to make the playoffs and get everybody back by playoff time and be peaking by then."
Not being a part of that early on was a rough way to begin a title defense for Lawson.
"The year's been long," Lawson exhaled after scoring a playoff career-best 22 points in the Game 1 win. "Very frustrating in the beginning, very frustrating, because I felt like in the offseason I had worked really hard on trying to improve as a player, trying to add different facets of the game on the offensive end. I got myself in really good shape, and all that kind of went down the drain because I had to sit out a month because of my sickness.
"And I lost all that. So I spent the first half of the year trying to get all of it back, playing catchup basically. That's hard to do at this level, because everyone is so good, everyone is in midseason form and you're trying to play catchup and get back to it. I just feel fortunate that coach was able to give me some time, some minutes, probably when I didn't deserve it early on, to try and help me get back into shape."
The same held true for Walker, who after giving birth in the offseason via C-section didn't return to the lineup until June 23 and didn't play 20 minutes in back-to-back games until just before the All-Star break in July. After breaking out as a star-in-waiting last season by averaging 14.1 points per game, she averaged 9.3 points (still the second-best average of her four seasons with the Monarchs) while working back into shape this season.
It looked touch-and-go at various points, but the Monarchs finally weathered the storm.
"We've gotten DeMya three-quarters of the way back from her pregnancy -- she still has stamina problems playing long minutes," Whisenant said after the game. "Kara is as good, maybe in better physical condition, than she's ever been. She's really worked hard, Kara is a dedicated player."
The funny thing is, even when Walker and Lawson returned in plenty of time for the stretch drive, they found a basketball world that if not giving up on the Monarchs, was at least retreating to a "prove-it" stance.
"And the next season everybody had already counted you out, just based on different things -- my pregnancy, Kara's illness, Yo's knees, our young players, people having to step up," Walker said about the perception of the team as it confronted the myriad challenges. "I mean, you can go down the list of things that people have thought they knew about us but didn't."
After a 9-8 start that had them mired in the thick of the race for the final playoff spot in the West, the Monarchs roared down the stretch with a 12-4 finish to clinch the second seed. And it only got better in the playoffs, where suddenly the Monarchs looked every bit as good as last year's champs in dispatching Houston and Los Angeles. Just like their coach had planned.
"So we set out the plan, and fortunately for us, right now, it looks like it's working," Whisenant said after his team shot 53 percent from the floor against a team that had limited opponents to 36 percent shooting in five playoff games.
For Lawson and Walker, Game 1 was a tribute to hard work. But for the rest of the team, it was a reward for their own perseverance, payback for gutting out tough wins under adverse circumstances early on. The Monarchs took every team's and every critic's best shot when they were down. They won't take anything for granted in a best-of-five series that has a ways to go. But win or lose, it's time to have fun. It's time to play on their terms.
"So for us to be here, it just tells us that, you know, it's true, if you stick together as a unit and you don't let outside influences dictate what you're capable of, then the sky is the limit," Walker said. "And right now, we're still reaching."
And when you're reaching as high as you can, it never hurts to have balance.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.