THE PLAYOFF DISH
By Graham Hays, ESPN.com
At halftime of Thursday's win, Cheryl Ford had 16 rebounds, just five fewer than the Sun totaled over the first two quarters. (AP Photo/Jerry S. Mendoza)
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Everyone deserves a second chance. Or in some cases, 23 second chances.
Thanks in part to Cheryl Ford and Plenette Pierson making the most of different kinds of second chances, the Detroit Shock now have a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals and a pair of opportunities to get the one win they need to get back to the WNBA Finals for the first time since winning the championship in 2003.
Ford's 23 rebounds were a playoff record that earned the adjective "Herculean" from coach Bill Laimbeer, who saw a few standout rebounding efforts from a young Dennis Rodman while playing for the Pistons. In a duel between the league's two top rebounding teams in the regular season, Ford's relentlessness on the glass helped the Shock withstand a quick start from Connecticut and wear down the Sun to pave the way for a decisive fourth quarter that saw the Shock outscore the Sun 22-10 on the way to a 70-59 win.
In a game of spurts for the Shock, who shot just 37 percent themselves and were outscored in the first and third quarters, Ford's aggressive board work and effort were the constants that helped keep Detroit in the game early and hold off a comeback late.
"For the most part I thought our effort defensively on man-to-man was outstanding tonight and that's what won the ball game for us," Laimbeer said before adding with a smile, "as well as Cheryl Ford's 23 rebounds."
But Ford wasn't the only player in Detroit's frontcourt aiding the cause by way of a second chance. For Pierson, the second chance had more to do with her place in the league than her work on the boards.
The No. 4 overall pick by Phoenix in 2003, Pierson never quite emerged as a consistent force during parts of three seasons with the Mercury. When she was dealt to Detroit for an aging Andrea Stinson and a second-round pick in June last year, it could have marked the beginning of a slide into a journeyman career or worse. Instead, Pierson seems to have found her footing in Michigan under the tutelage of two former NBA post players.
Early in Thursday's game, Pierson drew Laimbeer's ire, as did several other players, for not attacking the basket and playing too passively. At one point, Laimbeer pulled Pierson from the huddle during a timeout and had assistant coach Rick Mahorn talk to her one-on-one, a common site during Shock timeouts
"We had to ride her a little bit, we had to challenge her a little bit early on in the game, because she just wasn't getting it done," Laimbeer said. "As the game wore along, she kept playing. We kept riding her out there, and she played a very fine basketball game."
Added Pierson: "[Mahorn] has had a great impact on my game. He's helped me out with a few moves I need to make, my signature moves. And just helping me mentally to prepare myself every day for every game and to stay mentally focused."
Pierson finished with 11 points and seven rebounds in nearly 25 minutes, the only Detroit sub to play more than seven minutes. Coming off a 21-point effort in the clincher against Indiana in the first round, she has established herself as a key offensive threat off the bench and a good counter to Asjha Jones, Connecticut's top sub.
Saddled by expectations that overshadowed work still to be done early in her career, Pierson has taken advantage of her own second chance.
"I think now my games have improved to the point that I can do something with the minutes that I'm getting, as far as on the offensive end," she said. "I've always been a defensive threat, so now I've added that dimension to my game."
Now the Shock are on the verge of a second chance at a championship.
103 Forget Cheryl Ford's 23 rebounds. The most notable number is the fact Connecticut has missed 103 shots in its last two games. The Sun simply are not shooting well right now, missing 51 attempts Thursday and 52 last Sunday in their Game 2 win over the Mystics.
Poor shooting is one thing, but the Sun aren't even giving themselves a chance to make shots. If you're going to miss, you've got to try and at least miss long and get the ball over the rim to give yourself the chance for the ball to roll around the iron and perhaps fall in. Thursday, particularly in the fourth quarter, Connecticut's shots consistently fell short, flush on the front of the rim.
Detroit deserves a lot of credit. The Shock kept the Sun off balance with several different defenses and got great contribution from their stars and bench.
But nobody on the Sun was impressive Thursday. Yes, Erin Phillips, starting in place of injured Katie Douglas, had an OK game, playing on hustle and desire to more than double her regular-season scoring average with 13 points. But Connecticut will get swept if it can't knock down shots.
While Nykesha Sales' continued shooting woes (she's now 2-for-23 from the field in the playoffs) hurt, Asjha Jones' 1-for-11 effort was an even bigger factor. In the regular season, Jones came off the bench to average 11.1 points, but finished with just two Thursday. If Jones hits her average, the game might have had a different outcome, and it would have at least offset Plenette Pierson's 11-point game off the bench for Detroit. Instead, Pierson's performance, which also included seven key rebounds, ended up being a big factor and gave the Shock the edge in depth, a category that appeared even heading into the series.
In his postgame press conference, Sun coach Mike Thibault said Connecticut could have won by double-digit points if his frontcourt of Jones, Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Margo Dydek made their layups around the basket. And early on, it looked like it might happen. The Sun raced to a 23-9 lead after eight minutes. But that was more a factor of Detroit missing its shots than anything else. The misses allowed Connecticut -- which early on seemed to be in better position than Detroit for the long rebounds -- to get numbers up, rebound-and-run and build the lead. When the Shock settled down and started hitting their shots, Connecticut couldn't keep up.
Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer also deserves some credit for a very well-coached game, especially during three crucial possessions near the end of the second quarter. Coming out of a timeout with 2:56 to play and the Sun clinging to a one-point lead, 30-29, the Shock switched to a 3-2 zone. The Sun couldn't break it down, forcing up two missed shots and turning the ball over on the third possession as Smith scored five unanswered points to help give Detroit its first lead of the game and a four-point advantage at the break. It was a fantastic game plan by Laimbeer.
-- ESPN's Nancy Lieberman
WHY IS FORD SO TOUGH?
During a phone conversation last Friday, I asked Cheryl Ford what her rebounding career high was.
"I don't know 21 or 22? Something like that," she finally answered after an uncertain pause.
"Well," I said, "why don't you set a goal and try to break it?"
I can't be sure if Ford took the advice, but on Thursday, she broke her own personal best, the postseason record and came just one board short of the all-time single-game league mark.
It was an extraordinary performance.
But what makes Ford such a good rebounder?
For starters, she's very strong and powerful, and once she gets into position under the basket, she's very difficult to move out.
Offensively, if you don't box her out early, forget about it. She starts establishing her position as soon as Detroit's starting to run its offense, walking at you, pushing you toward the rim.
By the time you start pushing back, and even when the ball bounces out, you might think you have good position -- but then you realize she has forced you into a bad angle, too far under the rim.
And if you do get a hand on the ball, she'll win the tug-of-war with her long arms, strong upper body and huge hands.
Still, you can't attribute all of her rebounding prowess to skill.
On defense, sometimes it seems Ford simply has a nose for the ball, not unlike Dennis Rodman. When she's around the basket, she just has great anticipation to the ball.
And for the record, before Thursday, Ford's previous rebounding career high was 22, set in May 2004 at San Antonio.
Ford's high game this season came in June, when she grabbed 19, also at San Antonio.
-- ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman
Sacramento was lucky to get out of this one. I always say having homecourt advantage really means something, and I think a great home crowd and the comfortability of playing in Arco Arena was an advantage Thursday, especially with a slow start after five days off.
Defense continues to carry Sacramento. For the second straight series, the Monarchs are just trimming points off their opponents' average. And for as much as Los Angeles' Lisa Leslie is struggling right now, credit the Monarchs for pressuring her every step. They ran people at her; every time Leslie touched the ball, she had two people in her face. Sacramento kept her from getting those 8- and 9-footers and forced her to pass as often as possible.
Still, Leslie has to get it together. Coming off one of the worst quarters of her career -- 0-for-4 from the field (including two attempts blocked by Lauren Jackson) and no points in the final period Tuesday vs. Seattle -- Leslie needs to elevate her game back to the level she played in the regular season. Your MVP has to do better than 3-of-13 shooting and seven points in the playoffs.
This is where Chamique Holdsclaw's foot injury -- she has missed two straight games and all but two minutes of a third -- continues to hurt L.A. When Holdsclaw's on the court, it forces the opposing defense to stay honest, and that means more one-on-one opportunities for Leslie. But Sacramento will always gamble and leave the likes of Christi Thomas, Murriel Page and Jessica Moore to go and trap Leslie.
Kara Lawson was great. She has really elevated her game. She's always a gamer, and her basketball IQ is way up there, but she also is in the best shape of her career, perhaps dropping as much as 10-12 pounds.
And kudos to Ticha Penicheiro. She had a great couple of plays in the final 75 seconds, including a defensive rebound off a Leslie miss that set up Lawson's late 3-pointer, and a trey of her own. Penicheiro shot just 19 percent from downtown in the regular season. That she hit one in the clutch Thursday didn't surprise me -- she's a big-time player. But I liked her willingness to take that shot. That's one where maybe you look at it but pass off the ball. But she was willing and knocked it down (she's now 4-for-6 on 3s in the playoffs). What confidence.
-- ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman