Entering Playoffs, Sparks Remain Enigmatic
When the Los Angeles Sparks landed the number one pick in last October's WNBA Draft Lottery, the hype quickly followed. By pairing top pick and prodigy Candace Parker with legendary center Lisa Leslie, they immediately assumed the role of contender if not favorite to win the third WNBA championship in franchise history. Of ESPN.com's three WNBA experts, two picked Los Angeles to finish first in the Western Conference, the other putting them second. The Sparks also topped WNBA.com's preseason power rankings.
Four months later, to say that Los Angeles has disappointed would be an overstatement. The Sparks won 20 games for the eighth time in franchise history and were in contention for the top spot in the West until the season's final week. Still, the question lingers: Has Los Angeles played the kind of basketball the team is capable of playing?
"What we've got to do is start putting some games together, and what better time to do it than now?"
As Cooper indicates, it's not so much how many games Los Angeles has lost as to whom and where. Against the four WNBA teams to win at least 60 percent of the games, the Sparks were an impressive 7-4. Their record was actually slightly worse (8-5) against the five teams that won less than 50 percent. By contrast, the Storm went 11-2 in those winnable games. Improbably, four of L.A.'s five losses to sub-.500 teams came at the STAPLES Center.
"I think the biggest thing is that we always play up to our opponents' capabilities," explains Cooper. "If it's a bad team, we'll play like that team. If it's a good team, our expectations and our effort are a lot better."
"I think it's just about consistency," adds Parker. "That's what it's about with our team. I think throughout the season a lot of people have wondered which Sparks team was going to show up to any given game. It's about making sure the best team shows up every night and we play hard and play together."
In part, L.A.'s inconsistency likely can be traced to the team's backcourt. With Leslie, Parker and DeLisha Milton-Jones - all of them gold medalists with the U.S. Olympic team in Beijing - the Sparks are set up front. Storm Head Coach Brian Agler calls the trio the best frontcourt the WNBA has ever seen. The guard spots have been in flux, however, with three different players starting at point guard and several seeing action at shooting guard.
Guard play has been one reason that Los Angeles has been unable to put together the kind of elite offense typical of a team featuring three talented scorers. The Sparks ranked 10th in the WNBA in Offensive Rating and seventh amongst the eight playoff teams. Turnovers were particularly problematic, Los Angeles coughing the ball up on 19.2 percent of its possessions, the second-highest rate in the league. Three-point shooting was another key issue, the Sparks ranking last in the WNBA by shooting 31.1 percent from downtown.
At the same time, the Los Angeles defense might have been underrated. On the strength of the big and long frontline, the Sparks led the league in blocks per game with 6.4 per game; no one else in the WNBA blocked even five shots a night. Leslie (3.0) and Parker (2.3) ranked one-two in the league. That translated into 38.4 percent opponent shooting, best in the league. Los Angeles also dominated the glass, ranking second in the WNBA in rebound percentage. Cooper is counting on winning with defense during the postseason.
"I think we are a very good defensive team, the number one shot-blocking team in the league," he says, "and I think we're going to have to rely a little bit on that."
Regardless of L.A.'s regular-season inconsistency, no one is going to count the Sparks out going into the playoffs. Their talent, as well as the postseason experience of Leslie, Milton-Jones and Cooper, ensures that. In many respects, Los Angeles is the opponent that no one wants to face in a short playoff series. While confident, Storm players and coaches knows what confronts them in this matchup.
"They have three Olympic gold medalists," adds Storm forward Swin Cash. "Obviously Brian has mentioned that they have the best frontline. It will be a challenge. It will be one that if you play the game that you expect you look forward to. It's playoff time - you're not going to hide from anybody. You're not going to have easy games; there are no easy games."
While the Sparks have been up and down this year, the big stage of the postseason and the quality of opposition they will face might bring out the best in the team. Will Los Angeles bring playoff-caliber effort?
"I'm pretty sure we will," Cooper says. "We'll get the energy and effort. My concerns are the fundamental part of things. I think Seattle's a very good defensive team, so we're going to have to do a good job in our half-court execution.
"Now that we're at the so-called cream of the crop, that's who we're playing now, hopefully we'll play at the same energy and intensity level that Seattle will."
"I feel good about going into the series," says Parker. "We definitely have a lot of work to do over the next week, but it's just about taking it one game at a time and worrying about that. I think it's just about continuing to play. Whether we play here or there, we still have to play hard and we have to start off the game well. I think when we start off the game well, everything else falls into place."