Nearly left off the U.S. national team-by his college coach, no less-ShaneBattier has grown into an invaluable starter
In early August,the U.S. team traveled to Guangzhou, China, to play a series of exhibitiongames before the world basketball championships in Japan. On the team's firstday in the city, forward Shane Battier and center Brad Miller headed out fromtheir hotel to an electronics store, but within five minutes they had to leave."We literally could not walk through the store anymore," says Battier."People were trying to grab us and take pictures and get autographs. It was'Mr. Battier, sign, photo please.' Brad and I are not marquee guys on the team,but they knew who we were and were excited to see us."
Of course, thereception afforded Battier and Miller is more a reflection of the NBA's ragingpopularity in China than a sign that either man has joined LeBron and D-Wade asa global icon. Still, for Battier this has been something of a summer of Shane.First, in July the Rockets traded Rudy Gay, the eighth pick in this summer'sdraft, and power forward Stromile Swift to the Grizzlies for Battier. Somemight consider that a hefty price for a role player-he averaged 10.1 points and5.3 rebounds last year-but others see the trade as validation of Battier'svalue as a versatile, team-first defender. (According to 82games.com, only 19regulars in the league had a better on-court/off-court rating than Battier'snet of +8.5 points per 48 minutes in 2005-06.)
Second, Battiernot only made the final 12-man roster of the U.S. national team, which was amild surprise, but has also become a starter. After the U.S.'s 113-73 winagainst Australia, Battier was averaging 6.8 points and had knocked down 10 ofhis 15 three-point attempts. He'd also taken a host of charges-not a surprise,as he was 10th in the NBA with 48 taken last season-including a wince-worthyone against new Rockets teammate Yao Ming.
Battier's successon the U.S. team is a touch ironic because, for a while, his coach wasreluctant to include him on the final roster. Not because he didn't thinkBattier was worthy, but because of that whole 'Duke thing.' "I was probablyharder on his selection than anybody," says Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski,whom Battier played for from 1997 through 2001. "I wanted to make surethere wasn't any favoritism. But as we practiced, it became apparent toeverybody what he could do, and all the coaches and the people evaluating saidto me, 'You're an idiot. He's very valuable doing all this stuff.' And he'sbeen outstanding."
Battier is theembodiment of everything that recent incarnations of the U.S. team haven'tbeen: unselfish, defense-oriented, an ambassador for the game. "I know myrole on this team, and that's to play with energy, play defense, be a good teamguy," says Battier. "In years past the guys who've been really good onthis team felt they had to do it by themselves because that's how the NBAoperates. But the international game doesn't work that way."
Battier'sversatility-he can cover shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards-iswhat appeals to Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, and it's also been a boon toKrzyzewski, who has been starting Battier and Elton Brand as an undersized butworkaholic tandem at center and power forward. Who would have thought a fewyears ago that a role player like Battier would be starting for a national teamstocked with stars like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade? "He's the ultimateteam player and the ultimate pro," says Krzyzewski. "Is it valuable tohave a guy like that? I'd say. There aren't that many."
An Unfamiliar Ring to Her
Katie Smith hasalways done everything that has been asked of her on a basketball court. In2005 the lifelong shooting guard-she's the highest scorer in U.S. women'sprofessional basketball history (5,560 points over 10 seasons in the ABL andWNBA)-moved to a new team, the Detroit Shock, and became its point guard. Butafter Smith scored just two points in a 77-68 loss to the Connecticut Sun inGame 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, Shock coach Bill Laimbeer asked her toassume her old identity. "I told her at shootaround, I wanted to see theold Katie Smith," says Laimbeer.
Smith obliged,knocking down 16 points in a 79-55 blowout of the Sun on Sunday that earnedDetroit, the 2003 WNBA champion, a trip back to the Finals. "On top of herscoring, her defense was unbelievable," says Laimbeer. "She dug ballsout, she took charges, she got rebounds. She did everything she could to helpus win."
That's becauseSmith, 32, knows that a chance to play for a championship can't be taken forgranted. After winning two titles with the Columbus Quest of the now defunctABL, she never got beyond the first round of the WNBA playoffs in 61/2 yearswith the Minnesota Lynx. "When you have the tools to get to theFinals," says Smith, "you don't want to waste them.
The tools inDetroit's case include hyperathletic shooting guard Deanna Nolan, a superbstop-and-pop shooter, and the big, mobile front line of Ruth Riley, Swin Cashand Cheryl Ford, whose league-leading 11.3 boards a game were a big reason theShock outrebounded opponents by six per game. Says Sacramento coach JohnWhisenant, whose Monarchs will face the Shock in the best-of-five Finals thattip off on Wednesday in Michigan, "Detroit is a big, tough, power teamthat'll knock your head off inside."
Not that theMonarchs are short on physicality and grit. "We are built for the playoffsbecause we defend," says forward Kara Lawson. They have also shot well fromthe perimeter (.404 on three-pointers in the playoffs), taken care of the ball(11.5 turnovers per game) and rebounded (+8.5 margin). "We have to playsound and smart against Sacramento," says Smith, who will be the onlystarter on the floor without a WNBA championship ring. So playing hungry, inher case, is a given.
Despite scoring the big free-agent coup of the summerby signing Ben Wallace, the Chicago Bulls are at least a year away fromcontending for a title for these reasons.
The Bulls led the league in field goal defense last season (42.6%), so how muchof a difference can Wallace, the NBA's four-time Defensive Player of the Year,make at that end of the floor?
Of the 22 NBA finalists since 1995-96, only the Nets reached the Finals a yearafter failing to win a playoff series. The Bulls have not won a postseasonseries since Michael Jordan left in 1998.
Over the last quarter century only Wallace's Pistons (in 2003-04) won thechampionship without an MVP-caliber scorer. The Bulls must develop a reliableAll-Star if they hope to outscore Dwyane Wade or LeBron James in crunchtime.
The U.S. needed more take-a-charge players; they got one inBattier.
Smith (center) is the only starter in the Finals without a WNBAring.