Shock looking for 3rd straight trip to WNBA finals

Detroit and Los Angeles opened the season as the popular picks to reach the WNBA finals, and both teams are now one step away from fulfilling those expectations.

The Shock, looking for their third straight trip to the championship round, closed the season with six wins in their last seven games to earn the Eastern Conference's top seed, and then beat Indiana in the first round. Detroit led 41-10 midway through the second quarter through the decisive Game 3 and cruised to an easy victory.

"We executed brilliantly and the players deserve all the credit in the world," Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer said. "The performance we put on is the quality of a championship-caliber team."

Detroit won the championship in 2006 and fell short in its bid to repeat, losing Game 5 at home to Phoenix last year.

The Sparks, seeking their first trip to the finals since losing to the Shock in 2003, struggled for consistency but also finished the season strong -- winning six of their last eight to take the West's third seed -- and then beat Seattle in the opening round.

"We just have a lot of talent, work hard, believe in each other and have great chemistry in the locker room, on the court," Los Angeles' Lisa Leslie said. "And regardless of what other people were saying about us, we believe in each other."

The Sparks host top-seeded San Antonio in the opener of the conference finals Thursday night, and Detroit visits New York for the first game of the East finals the following night.

The Shock have home-court advantage against the Liberty, but will be playing their home games at Eastern Michigan University's Convocation Center -- an hour away from The Palace of Auburn Hills -- due to scheduling conflicts.

"It is what it is -- we'll have our floor and our baskets, and I expect that the place will be packed with Shock fans," Laimbeer said. "We'll handle it."

Detroit, which could be without injured forward Plenette Pierson, will also have to handle a tough New York team that is strong on 3-point shooting and has one of the best benches in the league with the reserves accounting for about 37 percent of the scoring

Two years removed from a franchise-record 23-loss season, the Liberty hovered around the .500 mark for much of the first half of the season before winning six of seven going into the Olympic break. New York lost five of the last nine while the frontcourt was depleted by injuries.

The Liberty beat Connecticut in the first round for their first postseason series win since ousting Detroit in the opening round in 2004. New York then lost to the Sun in the following round that year, and in the first round in 2005 (Indiana) and 2007 (Detroit).

"It's big for this team," Liberty center Janel McCarville said. "I think this organization and the players here have worked hard for it and we deserve to be there."

Last year, the Liberty routed the Shock in Game 1 of the first round at home and then lost two close games at the Palace -- including a one-point loss in overtime in Game 3.

Los Angeles, led by a trio of Olympians, doubled its win total after a 10-24 season last year when Leslie sat out due to a pregnancy. The three-time MVP was solid in her return and earned her second Defensive Player of the Year award. The Sparks also added No. 1 overall draft pick Candace Parker, who will likely be the league's Rookie of the Year, and reacquired forward DeLisha Milton-Jones from Washington.

"This is a tough season for us," Sparks coach Michael Cooper said. "It was like (getting) three new, great players and incorporating them with a whole new team."

San Antonio set a franchise record for victories and won the West largely by going 14-0 against the East. The Silver Stars, who also had the league's only winning road record (9-8), feature a strong inside-outside game with Sophia Young, Becky Hammon and Ann Wauters. The trio accounted for about two-thirds of the team's scoring, with veterans Erin Buescher, Vickie Johnson and Ruth Riley providing strong complements.

The Silver Stars and Sparks split their four regular-season meetings with the home team winning each time. San Antonio has the home-court advantage in this series.

"L.A. is just big and athletic, and pounds you on the boards," Hammon said. "It has to be about us and us playing our style and our tempo."

The Silver Stars outlasted Sacramento in the first round, winning Game 3 in overtime. Even after advancing to the conference finals for the second straight year, Hammon talked about the lessons they learned after losing Game 2 at home.

"You have to be so focused on the game that's in front of you," she said, "and not look down the road. I think it's a great example of us not being as focused as we should have been in Game 2 and looking too far ahead, feeling good about ourselves. We got to enjoy our wins, but we got to get to the next game and get our heads in the moment and compete."