Playing with only nine players – missing veteran All-Star guard Katie Smith and veteran forward Plenette Pierson – the Detroit Shock are not even "supposed" to be in the playoffs, much less one game away from the WNBA finals.
And it’s exactly situations like these that make legends of stars like Shock guard Deanna Nolan.
After reciting an ad for WNBA.com’s top 5 favorite players feature early in the second quarter, ESPN play-by-play commentator Pam Ward said, "If Deanna Nolan isn’t in your top 5…" and Nancy Lieberman finished, "…then you need to rethink why you like the game of basketball."
Although it may seem like standard ESPN hyperbole to some observers, Detroit Shock guard Deanna Nolan did all she could to prove herself worthy of the compliment and her All-WNBA second team selection in the Shock’s 72-56 victory in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Fever last night.
Moments before Ward and Lieberman’s joint statement, ESPN sideline reporter Rebecca Lobo interviewed Fever coach Lin Dunn about Nolan’s 2 points on 1 for 5 shooting in the first quarter, which ended with the Fever ahead 18-13.
"Well we're switching, we're switching bigs and littles," said Dunn. "We're just trying to disrupt her as best as we can. But I still feel like we've had a couple of breakdowns."
Unfortunately, they weren’t able to continue disrupting her over the course of the following three quarters.
If there is one thing we have learned about Nolan (and the Shock) this season, it’s that she’s resilient. After overcoming an early season coaching change and fighting nagging injuries, working through Indiana’s attempts to disrupt her game must have seemed like a simple task.
And in typical Nolan style, she made it look effortlessly fluid, almost lackadaisical. It’s truly looks as though she doesn’t care what the defense is doing to her at times.
With 6:38 left in the third quarter, Nolan got the ball on the left wing guarded by the 5’7" Tully Bevilaqua. She took about a second to decide what she was going to do and then took a few dribbles to the elbow where she stopped on a dime and just seemed to hover above the court before swishing home a jumper and drawing a foul.
It’s not that she merely recognizes opportunities to score and capitalizes, it’s that you watch her play and wonder why it is that she’s playing in an anti-gravity chamber while everyone else is running with a ball and chain tied to their ankle.
Defensively, Nolan did a better job on Douglas than immediately obvious in the box score, holding Douglas to 6 of 19 shooting.
With all that Nolan has accomplished and all that she can do on the court, it should come as no surprise that I was skeptical when I first heard someone mention that Shock rookie guard Shavonte Zellous was like a young Nolan. First, that would just be unfair to the rest of the league to have two Nolan-caliber players and second, the thought that anyone could be so good just sounds ludicrous.
And yet we witnessed just how good Zellous is and how far she has come in her rookie year.
Despite the fact that Nolan had a very strong game on both sides of the ball, an argument could be made that Zellous was the Shock’s player of the game last night as well. She was significant in coming off the bench to key a critical run in the second quarter and arguably being most responsible for the Shocks’ victory.
David Sparks’ formula for estimating player contributions to the game’s outcome helps to illustrate Zellous impact on the game. What we see here is that while Zellous was a slightly more productive than Nolan (credit), Nolan might have had a slightly more positive impact on the game overall when she was in (plus/minus).
While I would disagree with Lieberman that Zellous should be considered "…in the same mix with Angel McCoughtry, with DeWanna Bonner", Zellous’ progression this season would certainly be worthy of a "Most Improved Rookie" award, if such a thing existed.
I could go on about Nolan -- and she certainly deserves it -- but the real story of this game was Zellous’ performance, particularly in the 2nd quarter when she scored 12 of her game high 23 points, including 5 from the free throw line. She figured prominently during the 13-0 Shock run that spanned the 2nd and 3rd quarters when the Fever just went cold.
During the game, Zellous managed to display a little bit of everything that she is capable of and many things that she has improved upon.
What she’s done most effectively as she’s learned more this season and gotten more minutes with Smith injured is stay under control even as she zips around the court at Nolan-level speed. When she got the steal in the fourth quarter off a bad pass from Tully Bevilaqua, she demonstrated the ability to not only beat her defender in the open floor, but also collect herself and finish the break. Finishing shots has been a problem with her this season, especially early, as indicated by her low 2 point percentage.
Zellous has more than made up for her struggle with 2 point percentage by getting to the free throw line at one of the highest rates in the league during the regular season and a free throw rate of 68.7% last night. The combination of increased ability to finish and the free throw shooting is making her a potent offensive weapon.
However, something else that was impressive about her was her ability to make plays for others while minimizing mistakes.
Although she is still clearly a scorer first, she had 5 assists and 1 turnover last night for a pure point rating of 7.29, the type of rating normally reserved for an elite point guard. To be fair, Zellous is not the type of player who handles the ball with the intent to break down the defense and set up someone else, but she is starting to make better decisions with the ball and it has shown up in the playoffs thus far.
If the Shock want to advance to the WNBA Finals (again), they will not only need Nolan to continue playing well as the silent leader of this team, but also have Zellous continue playing well as both a scorer and facilitator.
No matter what happens next, this team should be commended for what they’ve accomplished thus far.
- In our game thread for the Phoenix Mercury's 103-94 victory over the Los Angeles Sparks, we had an ongoing discussion comparing Mercury guard Diana Taurasi to...well...almost any NBA player who's ever been deemed as "outstanding". Who would I compare Nolan to? Not sure. For some reason, Golden State Warriors guard Monta Ellis (pre-moped) springs to mind as a comparison for Zellous. But all I can think of for Nolan are comparisons to NBA potential never realized: Nolan is what players like Steve Francis or Larry Hughes could have been given their athletic talent or perhaps some combination of the two. I welcome all challenges on those assertions...and I do find it interesting that the only comparisons I can come up with for WNBA players on a contender are NBA players who never led a team very far...
- After claiming that Zellous should be considered in the same mix as McCoughtry and Bonner, Lieberman also threw Fever guard Brian January into the mix. "And put Briann January in the mix because she has not played like a rookie, she's played like a seasoned veteran." While I don't think she's in the same tier as the other three, January has consistently impressed me though she did not have a particularly strong game last night.
- (Shameless SBN promotion alert): Also during the game thread, presbot mentioned how well SBN mobile was working on his iPhone. You can access us via your phone at mobile.swishappeal.com. It would be great to have people at games in Phoenix or Indiana over the next few games filling us in on the in-arena experience.