THE PLAYOFF DISH
By Graham Hays, ESPN.com
After being a non-factor for much of the playoffs, Michigan native Kristin Haynie had four points, five steals, four rebounds and two assists in 17 minutes in Game 1. (Terrence Vaccaro/Getty Images)
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.
ESPN'S TAKE ON SACRAMENTO
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.
ESPN'S TAKE ON DETROIT
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.