Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Smith, Johnson Lead Shock to Victory

By Mechelle Voepel

September 12, 2007

PHOENIX -- Just because you've seen something before and aren't surprised to see it again doesn't mean you shouldn't take time to appreciate it.

Such is the case with the big-game performances of Detroit's Katie Smith and Deanna Nolan. Yes, we've seen them take the Shock on their backs many times before -- individually and together. But each time, it's a reminder of the supreme talent of two of the best pure scorers in women's hoops.

The Shock's 88-83 victory over Phoenix in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals on Tuesday -- which gave Detroit a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series -- was another example of the how good both can be, especially in pressure situations. Thanks in large part to Smith's and Nolan's jump-shooting ability, Detroit put the heat squarely on Phoenix and once again changed the tone of this series.

Smith had 22 points on 8-of-15 shooting -- and she almost certainly would have had more if she hadn't been forced to sit some with foul trouble. In the last four minutes of the third quarter, Smith simply shredded the concept of defense. She made three consecutive 3-pointers and then a long 2-point shot.

"We have had a lot of open looks throughout the series," Smith said. "You're able to get them in a zone, for the most part. We were able to knock them down."

Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer fleeced Minnesota to get Smith in a 2005 trade, knowing that she would give the Shock that kind of scoring potential -- but other things, too.

"She's that person that no matter what's going on in the game, you can count on her to play defense and be levelheaded," Laimbeer said. "And when it's her time, she produces offensively. Who's making the big shots? It's Katie Smith, when she has to make them."

Phoenix's Diana Taurasi also lauded Smith. Not just her offense, but her defense.

"Anyone who plays against her knows how strong she is," Taurasi said. "She's a great defender, really. Plays angles really well. She's proven it in the past where she's guarded … people out of position, and she always seems to do a great job."

Meanwhile, Nolan had 20 points -- but also 11 rebounds and six assists. The complete aspect of her game can be lost when you're mesmerized by the elevation on her jump shot, but the truth is that Nolan understands basketball extremely well.

The players who are so physically gifted can seem like they're relying on just that ability even when, in fact, a key part of their success is that they really do know how to execute plays. Nolan knows.

"It's a toss-up between stopping their bigs and getting out to the shooters," said Phoenix's Penny Taylor, summing up the dilemma of facing Detroit. "At times we did a good job, at times not so. Next game, it's just more of a focus."

The problem is, though, what do you focus on against the Shock? While Detroit's perimeter shooting carried it to victory Tuesday, the Game 1 win last week was fueled more by Detroit's inside play, with centers Kara Braxton and Katie Feenstra combining for 29 point and 19 rebounds while forward Plenette Pierson made jumpers and drove to the rim.

Detroit's All-Star center, Cheryl Ford, missed the first game with her knee injury and has been limited in Games 2 and 3. She played a little more than 16 minutes Saturday and had five points and seven rebounds.

Tuesday, she also had five points -- but pulled down 13 rebounds in her 27-plus minutes. Ford carried the load as much as she could while appreciating what Smith and Nolan provided. (Plus, let's give a nod to Shannon "Pee Wee" Johnson's 11 points.)

"We just needed our guards to hit some shots tonight," Ford said. "And they did."

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