New York Liberty guard Crystal Robinson is perhaps the best shooter in the WNBA. The former ABL all-star has a quick release and led the WNBA in three-pointers made with 76. She has made 60 percent of her shots during the playoffs.
But Robinson struggled Thursday in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, missing five of her first six field goal attempts and finishing 4 for 10. It wasn't that Robinson misplaced her shooting touch; her problem was the defense of Houston Comets forward Sheryl Swoopes.
"If I would have been picking defensive player of the year, Sheryl Swoopes would have been my pick," Robinson said. "If Sheryl makes up her mind she's going to stop somebody, she does."
Swoopes keyed Houston's defense that took the Liberty out of its offensive rhythm. As much as Cynthia Cooper's 29-point explosion, Swoopes's defense propelled the Comets to their 73-60 victory in the opener of the best-of-three series.
For the Liberty to stand a chance at winning the next two games, it must solve Houston's defensive puzzle. The Comets can secure their third WNBA title with a victory Saturday afternoon at Compaq Center.
"I knew what my job was," Swoopes said. "I just wanted to go out [Thursday] night and play really good defense and not allow them to get started."
Every time Robinson glanced toward the basket, Swoopes was in her face with a hand. She took Robinson out of her comfort zone and refused to give her easy baskets.
"She's so versatile defensively," Robinson said. "She can guard a guard. She can guard a post [player]. . . . She's quick. She's really fast coming off screens. I can come off a screen and curl and I don't have a chance to shoot it because she's so close to me."
Swoopes was known for her scoring abilities at Texas Tech, but since coming to Houston, she has discovered that impressive offensive numbers were not enough to earn her playing time with Coach Van Chancellor.
"She came to me [in 1997] and said she wanted to play big, big minutes," Chancellor said. "I said, 'Fine--you can have big minutes as long as you guard somebody.' . . . She got tired of me saying, 'Swoopes, are you going to guard anybody tonight?' "
Swoopes's tendency in the past was to go for the steal. This season, she turned into an all-around defender. With her long arms and quickness, most shooters find her a difficult obstacle.
Swoopes, who finished second to Sacramento's Yolanda Griffith in the most valuable player balloting, is enjoying her finest season in the WNBA. Swoopes was expected to be Houston's marquee player when the WNBA formed three years ago. She was the first woman to have a basketball shoe named after her and was a member of the 1996 Olympic team that won the gold medal.
But now she plays the role of Scottie Pippen to Cooper's Michael Jordan. Swoopes's WNBA career got off to a slow start when she missed 19 games following the birth of her son, Jordan. Last season, she averaged 15.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game to earn WNBA first-team honors.
This year, as Swoopes has become a complete player, her scoring has not diminished. She recorded the WNBA's first triple-double when she notched 14 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists against Detroit on July 27. Swoopes averaged 18.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game during the regular season.
Now Chancellor rewards Swoopes by putting her on the opposing team's top scorer.
"I'm willing to do whatever I have to do so our team can win," Swoopes said. "I feel like I am a pretty good defensive player to have an assignment like going out and guarding [the opponent's] best player, their best perimeter shooter. I take a lot of pride in that."
Note: The league fined Liberty Coach Richie Adubato $1,500 for his postgame comments criticizing the officiating in Game 1.