Monarchs reserves do everything but ... warm bench
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Sacramento starters Nicole Powell, DeMya Walker, Kara Lawson and Yolanda Griffith combined to outscore the Detroit Shock 77-71 in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, and yet Sacramento's bench still found a way to shine.
Leave it to the best bench in the league, a group that does everything well except perhaps keep the seats on the bench very warm.
"We take a lot of pride," Rebekkah Brunson said of the reserves. "We know that we have to keep up the momentum, keep up the intensity for our starting five. I think we play our bench more than the majority of the teams in the league, so we need to be continually focused and be ready to go."
Brunson is a perfect example of what sets Sacramento's bench apart. She might be the most athletic post in the league, an interior version of Detroit's Deanna Nolan in terms of her ability to beat opponents to any spot, horizontally or vertically. While her offensive game is still unpolished, she brings something unique to the court when she enters the game. She doesn't just kill time while the starters rest, she adds something to Sacramento's attack.
And it's a theme among the players who start the game in warm-ups.
"We know that our time is going to come, so we have to be ready," Hamchetou Maiga-Ba said. "If Nicole goes out, I may not bring the same scoring, but I have to be able to play defense. All the little stuff. We don't bring the same stuff, but each player brings something to the table."
Sacramento's reserves scored just 15 points against the Shock (adding 14 rebounds, seven assists and six steals), but offense wasn't what coach John Whisenant needed from his top four bench players; the starters provided plenty of that. What Brunson, Maiga-Ba, Kristin Haynie and Erin Buescher, who all played at least 14 minutes, provided was rest for the hot hands and fatigue for Detroit, a team with nowhere near the same kind of depth.
When Whisenant started the second quarter with those four key reserves alongside Lawson, and then left them there to not only protect but extend the lead from six points to 11 points during the first three minutes of the period, you knew what kind of faith he has in them.
"That's what the bench is for," Haynie said. "The bench, we've contributed a lot to the team through the season, so we just have to keep it up. We've got to pay attention and just stay focused when we're not in there, and then when our name is called, come off the bench and give that spark."
Added Lawson, who found herself free enough to hit 6-of-8 shots from behind the arc: "It feels like [the Shock] are constantly coming at you, so for us to be able to put a whole other five-man team out there is great. If we get in foul trouble, like we had a couple of players do early on, we don't miss a beat. I thought our bench was great tonight. I though Haynie particularly did a great job coming in and running the team."
Perhaps no player better sums up what the Monarchs are all about than Buescher. She won the league's most improved player award, averaging a career-best 9.7 points per game on 54 percent shooting. But when Walker returned from maternity leave, Buescher's minutes began to drop. She didn't pout or sulk. She didn't even struggle to adapt back to her old role, a reaction which would have been entirely understandable. She just played the role given to her.
"I think the way I look at my role is just to go out and just play hard," Buescher said. "Tonight, DeMya had some fouls earlier, so I had to play a few more minutes earlier than I probably would have. Whatever you ask me, I'm going to give 100 percent at it. So whatever that area may be, I just kind of wait and see what that might be, because it could change on any given night."
Sacramento's scoring balance was an easy way to highlight their balance this season, as nine players averaged at least five points per game. But in opening the WNBA Finals with a win on the road, the Monarchs showed their deep bench doesn't need to score to be the best in the business.
Sacramento played as good of a playoff game as I've seen any team play against a quality opponent in the 10-year history of the league.
Everything went right for the Monarchs on Wednesday; it was the type of game you want to bottle and save because it's never going to be better.
En route to setting numerous WNBA Finals records, the Monarchs shot better than 50 percent from both the field (35-of-66) and 3-point range (10-of-19). They outboarded the best rebounding team in the league -- at halftime, Sacramento had 10 offensive rebounds to Detroit's 12 total -- and were able to capitalize on Detroit's mistakes, turning 24 turnovers into 18 points.
Nicole Powell and Kara Lawson, who combined for 43 points on 15-for-22 shooting from the field (68 percent), were superb. They set the tone for Sacramento early, each hitting two deep 3-pointers -- one of Lawson's treys was even well beyond NBA range -- in the first quarter. That allowed both players to get into a rhythm and also helped open up the middle for Sacramento's posts because it forced the Shock to go out and defend the 3-ball.
Sacramento also continued to get great contributions from its bench, and though the reserves scored only 15 points Wednesday (they averaged a league-high 33 in the regular season and also 23 ppg in the first two playoff series), they did a lot of little things that won't show up in the box score. Erin Buescher came in when Yolanda Griffith got into early foul trouble, Kristin Haynie spelled Ticha Penicheiro at the point for her best game of the postseason and Rebekkah Brunson led Sacramento in rebounding (seven). By halftime, Sacramento's bench had grabbed 10 rebounds; the starters had 12.
The Monarchs sent a pretty clear message to Detroit: You might have more athleticism and more All-Stars. But you will not bully us, you will not push us around. And you'd better play a lot better next time.
-- ESPN's Nancy Lieberman
Click here to read Graham Hays' take on Kara Lawson and DeMya Walker returning to form for the Monarchs.
The Shock weren't just outplayed; they never got into their game plan, were out of sync and outhustled. Kara Lawson and Nicole Powell had their shooters' touch Wednesday, but Detroit failed to fight hard enough to get out on them and prevent the Monarchs' duo from jump-starting Sacramento's offense with lethal 3-pointers.
Swin Cash's performance was horribly disappointing, especially after she had what was expected to be a breakout game in Detroit's last outing. Instead, she once again looked like a shell of the player she was before a torn ACL in September 2004. If she and Ruth Riley continue to play as poorly -- a combined two points on 0-for-3 shooting in 26 minutes -- Detroit doesn't have a chance.
The Shock can still win this series. But as we learned Wednesday, Cheryl Ford, Katie Smith and Deanna Nolan (60 of the team's 71 points) can't do it by themselves. The efforts of those three players alone were Detroit's only redeeming qualities, and everyone else on the roster should be apologizing to that trio.
In addition to getting on the boards and taking better care of the ball (24 turnovers), ball movement is Detroit's big key in Game 2. Though the Shock's passing game is underrated, 62 percent of their baskets are off of assists, and three Shock players rank among the league's top 20 in assists per game. But they failed to reverse the ball to the weak side and set themselves up for the score.
The biggest key might be mental. Both Ford and Cash had verbal incidents with coach Bill Laimbeer during Game 1. Frustrations were obviously running high, but right now, they must put this game behind them. And if I was Laimbeer, I wouldn't show that game film to the team. I'd burn it. The Shock know they didn't play well and aren't going to gleam anything watching themselves get routed. They need to move on.
Earlier this week we talked about Detroit's propensity to implode. Though Sacramento deserves a tremendous amount of credit, the Shock can be emotionally fragile and can be their own worst enemy. I think we saw that Wednesday.
-- ESPN's Nancy Lieberman
6 Teams winning Game 1 of the WNBA Finals have gone on to win the championship in six of the last nine seasons.
And yes, Sacramento did it last year, when the Monarchs also stole a Game 1 road win in Connecticut before wrapping up the series in four games.
Nicole Powell, Sacramento
With just more than two minutes remaining in the third quarter, and the Shock threatening to well, threatening to at least make their final margin of defeat look respectable, Nicole Powell drove to the baseline, spun away from her defender and hung in the air long enough to draw a foul before burying a jumper.
It was just that kind of night for the former Stanford star.
Powell finished with 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including 4-of-7 from behind the arc, while adding four assists and three steals. On a team loaded with players who do a lot of something, Powell is the player capable of doing a lot of everything. Like Deanna Nolan for the Shock, Powell can still have nights where her shooting touch deserts her and the field-goal percentage can induce a cringe. But also like Nolan, she's one of the few players in the league who really can't be guarded when she's on her game.
“It was like a never-ending, uphill battle. ”
— Katie Smith of the Shock, who trailed the entire game (falling behind by as many as 21 points) after a brief 2-0 start
It has been a long time since the Portland Fire lost the last four games of the 2002 regular season, missing out on the first playoff berth in franchise history when the rival Seattle Storm finished one game better in the standings.
The Storm went on to win a championship two years later; the Fire folded without every playing another game.
Four years later, Jackie Stiles is long gone from the basketball scene (the face of the Portland franchise and the 2001 WNBA rookie of the year was forced from the game by a series of injuries). And she's not alone. Only two players on that last Fire team remain in the league: Indiana's Tully Bevilaqua and Sacramento's DeMya Walker.
Preparing for her second consecutive trip to the WNBA Finals, Walker reflected on her Northwest hoops roots.
"Portland, to this day, means the world to me," Walker said, putting her hands over her heart while getting taped up before the opener. "It was my opportunity. I mean, you look at the story of me getting into the league -- trading Tari Phillips, who was an All-Star just taking a chance on me. [Former Fire coach] Linda Hargrove just took a chance, just said, 'I think I see something; let's see if I can build off it.' And to go from there to where I am now, I mean, it all started with Portland.
"And it was three of the best years of my life; I mean I absolutely adored the Rose Garden, I adored the people; I loved everything about Portland. Portland is like a mirror image of Sacramento: We were scrappy, we fought hard every night, we did all the little things. And we genuinely cared and liked each other."
Known as the "Fashion Queen" in those days (fans had a chance to win a shopping spree with Walker in a local mall), Walker learned about life in the WNBA on a team that eventually found its own life extinguished.
"I was young -- and to me, I'm still young -- but I was really young then," Walker, 28, said. "I was learning how to be a pro. We were learning together, because we all got there at the same time. Then when I got here, and I'm with pros who have been pros, that's when you take that next step."
Portland is long gone from the WNBA scene, but Fire fans still have one player to root for in this series.
It's not impossible for the Shock to sweep the next three games to win the title, but odds are if they want to stop the Monarchs, they'll have to win a potential Game 5 on the same home court they couldn't defend in Game 1.
Actually, it won't be the same home court.
Because the folks in charge of booking events for the Palace apparently didn't think the Shock would make it this far, Mariah Carey will be crooning in Auburn Hills on the same night as a Game 5 would take place. As a result, the Shock would have to play at Joe Louis Arena. Sure, they'd have the same local fans (for the most part), but setting up shop at a new arena would certainly disrupt the routine the Shock enjoy at their regular home, which is nearly 50 miles from downtown Detroit.
Even before the loss in Game 1, it wasn't something the Shock wanted to discuss.
"You know what? No," Katie Smith said when asked if she had thought about the prospect of playing at Joe Louis Arena. "I mean, we're aware that it might happen, but we have a long ways to get to that point. We're just going to take it one game at a time, not really look past anything. I really haven't thought about it, and I'm sure nobody else really has."
They may be thinking about it now.
For a complete look at the WNBA Finals schedule, previous results and upcoming games, click here.
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