Insider Preview - Storm at Los Angeles (Game 1)
Wednesday, Sept. 16, 7:00 p.m.
Radio: 1150 AM KKNW
LiveAccess: No Live Video - Available to those with access to ESPN360.com
Kevin Pelton, stormbasketball.com
As the Seattle Storm and Los Angeles Sparks prepare for tonight's first game of their Western Conference Semifinal series, there remain many unanswered questions on both sides. The two teams played four times during the regular season, but Sparks star Lisa Leslie missed three of the four games and Candace Parker two of the four, while the Storm had center Lauren Jackson each time.
Despite the stress fractures in her lower back that will keep Jackson out of this series, the Storm is healthier than it has been in weeks. Guards Sue Bird and Tanisha Wright, who sat out the final three games and one game of the regular season respectively, have practiced this week and will be back in the starting lineup. Also, the Storm could get some minutes from forward Katie Gearlds, who has not played since Aug. 4 because of a torn PCL. While Gearlds will surely be rusty, her shooting ability brings a different dimension to the Storm's second unit; the team has seen more zone since Gearlds was injured.
Los Angeles went through a transition period at midseason, when first Parker returned after giving birth and then Leslie rejoined the lineup following a knee injury. The last of the four Storm-Sparks matchups was actually the second L.A. game with Leslie back in the lineup. Head Coach Michael Cooper was forced to try to find a way to incorporate four Olympians (DeLisha Milton-Jones and Tina Thompson being the others), all of whom are naturally frontcourt players. (The Sparks also have a fifth Olympian, Australian National Team point guard Kristi Harrower.)
Cooper has played all four players together. The L.A. PR department lists Thompson as the shooting guard in that lineup, though in practice it is Milton-Jones who will likely defend the Storm's Tanisha Wright. Either way, there will be a mismatch on the perimeter when the two starting lineups on the floor. The Sparks will be able to post up smaller defenders and crash the glass, while the Storm will have the quickness advantage.
L.A. never entirely settled on a starting lineup, going through 12 over the course of the season and four after Leslie's return. Lately, Noelle Quinn replaced Harrower as the starting point guard for the Sparks in the season's final two games after playing the role of sixth woman much of the season. Quinn will be a key figure in this series. When the Storm double-teams Leslie and Parker in the post, Quinn will get open shots. Last year, L.A.'s guards made the most of those opportunities to make the Storm pay. Quinn shot just 31.2 percent from three-point range, but otherwise had an excellent season, showing the ability to both score and distribute.
The Sparks get a different look when former Storm guard Betty Lennox comes off the bench, shifting to a more traditional lineup. Lennox, who did not play the last time these teams squared off, has offered scoring punch, averaging 8.6 points in a reserve role. A Lennox-Quinn backcourt works well because Quinn has the size to defend bigger guards who can cause Lennox problems.
While the injuries mean the Storm's starting lineup has not played together since Sept. 3 at Washington, a stretch of nearly two weeks, they have also given the team's reserves an opportunity to get regular playing time. Shannon Johnson set and re-set her season high for scoring in ably filling in for Bird at the point, while Suzy Batkovic-Brown has looked more comfortable with her increased minutes and could help the Storm off the bench in this series.
|With Jackson sidelined, the Storm will turn to Janell Burse to battle Leslie. The two squared off in the 2006 Playoffs, when Leslie was held to 35.1 percent shooting in a hard-fought three-game L.A. win. Entering her final postseason before retiring, Leslie continues to play excellent basketball. With plenty of options around her, Leslie shot a career-high 51.8 percent from the field. Still, Leslie is the go-to player in the post for the Sparks, and the Storm will pay plenty of attention to her. Burse can help the Storm by making Leslie work on defense. She's averaged 9.8 points as a starter and finished the season with back-to-back 15-point outings.|
Quinn led Los Angeles on a night when the bigger Sparks stars were held in check by the Storm's defense. She scored a career-high 23 points, eight of them in OT. Jackson paced the Storm with 21 points before fouling out in overtime. Three Storm players - Swin Cash, Camille Little and Wright - had 14 points apiece, and the backcourt of Wright and Sue Bird had six assists each without a turnover.
Los Angeles - None.