Sparks at Shock
Another way to look at the West’s superb balance - where a playoff berth and last place are separated by just one game - is this: the Los Angeles Sparks, a popular preseason favorite to win the West, was in third place after losing four of its last five games. All four losses were on the road to West opponents: Sacramento, Seattle, Phoenix and Houston.
Now the Sparks (13-10), headlined by former three-time league MVP Lisa Leslie and rookie sensation Candace Parker, make their only visit to The Palace Tuesday hoping to end the slide. “They need a win very badly,” Shock head coach Laimbeer said after the 88-85 setback to the Monarchs. “And so do we.”
The Sparks won the first meeting, 80-73, at Los Angeles June 11. Defense dictated the pace after L.A. took a 32-26 first-quarter lead. “They made shots in the first half against us out there,” Laimbeer said. “They made everything. It got them a little bit of lead and they held on at the end.”
That contest was a turning point for two Shock players. Point guard Elaine Powell, who injured her left foot and has been sidelined ever since, and Tasha Humphrey, who made her first WNBA start. The rookie forward from Georgia knocked down her first three shots, scoring eight points in 10 minutes. Three days later she exploded for a Shock rookie record 28 points at Phoenix.
Humphrey’s been a starter ever since, despite going through an evident swoon late in June and early July. When the Shock signed 6-foot-4 Stacey Lovelace, a six-year vet who possesses a similar skill set, it appeared Humphrey’s starting days were numbered. Instead, the former Lady Bulldog put together her most productive streak. In the five games since Lovelace’s debut July 11, Humphrey has averaged 10.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per game while shooting 59.5 percent from the field.
“I was trying to focus more, try to be 100 percent focused on my job and what I’m here to do, and that’s rebound and hit open shots,” Humphrey said after posting 11 points and seven rebounds in Sunday’s loss. “I wasn’t doing that for a while. That was my fault and I blame that on myself. So just a new focus.”
Humphrey’s improved rebounding adds to a frontcourt battle that boasts the WNBA’s top three board collectors. Parker (9.6 rpg) and Leslie (9.2 rpg) have flip-flopped for No. 1 while Detroit’s Cheryl Ford (8.7) has held down the third spot. Ford had just four points and four rebounds in the June 11 loss. Having spent the first half of 2008 regaining her shooting touch and conditioning, Ford has started to look more like the dominant player she was before a series of knee injuries in 2007. She has averaged 14.2 points and 8.0 rebounds in her last five games.
Ford’s setback-free return and the promising play of Humphrey and fellow rookie Alexis Hornbuckle have the Shock in sitting pretty with 10 games left. Leading the Eastern Conference by two games, the Shock (16-8) can remind the West how tough they are with home wins over L.A. and first-place San Antonio (16-8) on July 27, the last day of competition before the month-long Olympic break.