I have to admit I’ve been neglecting the WNBA more than usual this year, but I parachuted in Sunday night to watch the deciding third game of the Eastern Conference finals, and I really liked what I saw in the Detroit Shock, who pounded the Connecticut Sun 79-55 on the road to advance to the Finals against the Sacramento Monarchs.
You know that thing where you hardly ever watch a certain TV show, but one day you decide to and, sure enough, it’s a rerun of the one episode you’ve ever seen? Twice? That’s me and the Detroit Shock. Whenever I tune in, they’re on.
And that’s a pretty good thing because I like the Shock. I find this shocking because the reason I like them is their coach, Bill Laimbeer, whom I always hated when he was a player.
If you watched the NBA in the ’80s and weren’t a Pistons fan — or even if you were — I probably don’t have to explain why I hated him. If ever a player combined dirtier play with more outrageously unjustified whining to the referees than Bill Laimbeer, he’s gone undetected by this observer.
But a funny thing happened after he retired. He became likable in a weird sort of way. In addition to coaching the Shock, whom he led to the WNBA title in 2003, he works as a broadcaster on Pistons games and has done some studio work for ESPN. He’s basically a big goofball.
And that comes through in his coaching as well. Laimbeer routinely lets himself get miked for sound, and there’s often a kind of winking tone to his banter with the referees.
Not always. At one point Sunday he got worked up over a foul call — no one playing on a team with which Laimbeer is associated has ever committed a foul, you have to understand — and he became the familiar old red-faced, red-assed Laimbeer. “That’s bullshit!” he yelled at a referee right in front of the scorer’s table. ESPN blanked out the swear word, making use of a delay, but it cost Laimbeer a technical foul.
At another point, though, when Shock star Katie Smith was whistled for a foul on what looked like a clean steal, Laimbeer calmly and wryly asked an official, “What’d she do, take her arm off?”
Even after his technical, Laimbeer quickly calmed down and sheepishly pointed to himself as he mouthed to his players on the floor, “My bad.”
He’s a serious coach, though. He keeps things admirably simple. Whenever he sends a substitute into the game, his message is the same: “I need some rebounds.”
None of this mattered Sunday because the Shock blew out the Sun, who looked like they’d showed up for an offseason scrimmage. To be fair, the Sun’s best player, Katie Douglas, is hobbled by a broken foot and was not a factor, scoring nine points on 3-for-10 shooting, all of her shots but one miss three-point attempts.
The Shock have a big, talented frontcourt of Swin Cash, Ruth Riley and Cheryl Ford, along with reserve Kara Braxton, who scored 12 points in 14 minutes in the clincher after a desultory five-minute, two-point performance in a Game 2 loss Saturday. Cash, who had 16 points and eight rebounds Sunday, was also lousy Saturday, with four and five.
I understand that the Shock don’t always show up and play hard, which is surprising because, for all his faults, that’s not something you could say about their coach. Laimbeer was a jerk, but not a shirker. The Shock do reflect their boss in the way they whine about every foul, though, so that’s something for him to be proud of.
To complement that frontcourt, they have a dynamite pair of guards in Smith and Deanna Nolan, though Nolan was limited Sunday by a hip pointer. The Monarchs, whom they’ll meet in the best-of-five Finals starting at home on Wednesday, have a pretty good front line of their own, with Nicole Powell and DeMya Walker complementing star center Yolanda Griffith. Kara Lawson and veteran point Tisha Penicheiro are a fine backcourt too.
The Monarchs, the defending champs, were only the second seed in the West after going 21-13, but that’s misleading. They got off to a rough start, thanks to some illness and injuries, and at one point were only 9-8. Since then they’ve gone 16-5, including 4-0 in the playoffs.
There’s a fair bit of crowing around the WNBA that this is the first time in league history that the Finals will not have a top seed. The Sun were the No. 1 in the East, the Shock No. 2. Ordinarily, increasing parity, the inability of one team to dominate a conference, is a sign of an improved level of play.
I think play in the WNBA is getting better, but we shouldn’t read too much into a pair of 2-seeds making the Finals.
The Monarchs were clearly a better team than the top-seed Los Angeles Sparks once they got going in July — they went 14-8, playoffs included, while Sacramento was going 16-5 — and who knows what would have happened in the Eastern Conference finals had Douglas been healthy. She missed Game 1 and was severely limited in the other two, though she seemed to provide a lift in the Game 2 win.
I’m looking forward to the Finals. I hope they live up to their considerable promise. The WNBA deserves it for no other reason than this: The regular season is a wonderfully reasonable 34 games long.
That and good ol’ Bill Laimbeer. What’s not to love?
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