Friday, May 18, 2007

Katie Smith: Vital Part of Champion Shock

Not so Shock-ing: Detroit's swagger is still there

By Oscar Dixon
May 17, 2007

Bill Laimbeer and his defending WNBA champion Detroit Shock seemingly go out of their way to rub their success in everyone's face.

Whether cocky or just confident, Laimbeer doesn't lose any sleep over it.

"We have an attitude about us, there is no question about that," Laimbeer says proudly. "And it started when I came in. I tell my players that I am a championship coach. All I care about is playing for the championship. I'm not doing this just for a job. And I expect them to act accordingly.

"If people call us arrogant, well, I don't really care."

With good reason. The Shock have gone from 9-23 in 2002 to shooting for their third title in five years.

They will receive their 2006 championship rings before hosting Sacramento in the season opener Saturday in a rematch of last year's Finals (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).

"Detroit is clearly a team with talent, probably the most talented top six" in the league, ESPN analyst Doris Burke says.

"But beyond that, it's this collective mentality that they like to perform when the lights are on. It takes a great mental toughness and ability to be able to focus at the most critical times. During the regular season they can be bored because of their talent."

Pat Coyle, coach of the retooled New York Liberty, says people should forget about the Shock's image and focus on the team's four "legitimate All-Stars."

"They can hurt you outside, inside," Coyle says. "They've been playing together now for a couple of years, and when you have a backcourt of Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith, you're going to beat a lot of teams.

"Do they take on (Laimbeer's) personality? I think they do, and they have a right to. They've gotten it done two of the last four years."

Laimbeer, one of the NBA "Bad Boys" with the Pistons, was known as a physical player on defense as Detroit won back-to-back titles in 1989 and '90.

If the Shock repeat this season, it would be the most dominant run since the Houston Comets won the first four WNBA titles, from 1997-2000. But it is harder for a franchise to sustain that excellence today with more competition, free agency and salary caps.

"When the Comets won four straight, the league was in its infancy stage, and they had four of probably the top-10 players in the world on the same team," Laimbeer says. "Not to diminish what they accomplished … but the league today is much more competitive.

"We're in that window of opportunity where we're going to compete for the championship for probably the next three, four, five years, depending on what other pieces I might be able to add."

Players fit Laimbeer mold

Regardless of the pieces, the roster will reflect Laimbeer's philosophy.

Smith, the first professional women's player to score 5,000 points and who has averaged 16.4 points in eight WNBA seasons, was acquired in a 2005 midseason trade with Minnesota. At 5-11, 175 pounds, the six-time All-Star is one of the most physical guards in the league and known to play hard.

"Bill doesn't shy away from 'edgy.' We all have a little edginess to us in a way," Smith says. "As competitors, edgy is good. You have to be coachable, but you have to have that fight in you. And every player on this team has that fight in them."

Laimbeer seeks that trait in players.

"I build my team around players who are more athletic than skilled," he says. Power forward Cheryl Ford "wasn't very polished. She is becoming that now. Deanna Nolan was always an underachiever for her athletic talent. She is becoming a great player right now. (Small forward) Swin Cash was always in the shadow of Sue Bird.

"I'm not afraid to go out and get athletes who are very strong-willed and mold them into" teammates.

Smith, an Olympic gold medalist, says Laimbeer's approach has created a locker room unlike any she has been in.

"Pretty much anything goes, and that's across the board, coaches and players," she says of the verbal exchanges behind closed doors. "It's all about winning. We're getting paid to win basketball games, not to just play basketball games."

It's not winning games that bothers others, it's how they win: with the intent to dominate.

"We try to blow people out," says Nolan, a 5-11 guard who averages 12.1 points and has used her 33-inch vertical leap to try to dunk during games. "Just to set that standard and let everybody know who we are and what we do."

What they do is run, with Nolan, Smith and Cash, who averages 13.3 points. The Shock also pound the boards, led by Ford, who averaged a league-leading 11.3 rebounds last season.

"We want to be the best team, we want to be the most physical, and we want to dominate on the floor," Cash says. "And if you dominate on the floor, then everything else takes care of itself."

Smith knows what it's like to be an opponent after seven years with the Lynx.

"You always knew you were in for a battle," she says. "They were going to knock your head off if they had to and just keep coming after you, especially on the boards, where they were going to keep pounding you and pounding you.

"It was like they had a chip on their shoulder in the sense that everybody hates them. And now being on the other side, it's true. Not a lot of people like us."

Rival Sun ready for rematch

Former Los Angeles Lakers star Michael Cooper, who has returned to coach the Los Angeles Sparks after a two-year stint in the NBA and Developmental League, played against Laimbeer in the NBA and coached against him in the WNBA.

"There's no comparison," Cooper says. "Those ladies look a lot better than Bill. Former players kind of coach the way they played and were coached. Detroit, I don't think, crosses the line. They play very good, hard basketball. They've got some players that are similar to Bill and (assistant coach and former Pistons Bad Boy) Rick Mahorn, (including) Cheryl Ford. They just go out and play tough. They're a very physical team."

One of Detroit's fiercest rivals are the Connecticut Sun and coach Mike Thibault, who shares a mutual respect on the court with Laimbeer and the Shock but not much else. The Sun are looking forward to another conference final showdown.

"They've made changes, we've made changes," Thibault says, referring to his trade of forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin and the Shock moving center Ruth Riley. "When you are in our situation, or Indiana's or Washington, the team that wins is the one you measure yourself against. I can't make every single decision I make based on Detroit.

"Ultimately, you try to build a team that is good enough at the end of the season. You don't back up the truck and make wholesale changes, but you certainly have to know that you have to be more physically ready to match some of the things they do."

Asked if the Shock are the best team, Laimbeer says yes.

"Not only did we win the championship last year, but we're better," he says.

"We're better individually, we're better collectively. … We're better talent-wise, and we have better chemistry."

Let the games begin.

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