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Insider Preview - Storm vs. Los Angeles

HEAD-TO-HEAD
5-4 RECORD 4-5
L-1 STREAK L-4
3-2 LAST 5 1-4
69.0 PF 80.4
93.1 Off. Eff. 104.8
69.8 PA 81.3
95.7 Def. Eff. 104.9
32.1 RPG 34.3
.500 Reb % .480
74.0 Pace 76.1
4.3 Exp. Wins 4.2

Storm (5-4) vs. Los Angeles (4-5)
Saturday, July 9, 7:00 p.m.
KeyArena
TV: KONG 6/16 and NBA TV
Radio: AM 1090
LiveAccess: Live Video outside the Seattle area
Buy Tickets:
Promotion: Team poster presented by Bartell Drugs

Kevin Pelton, StormBasketball.com


Without their star post player, the veteran team has relied heavily on one of the WNBA's assist leaders, an all-time leading scorer and a forward nominated for the Top 15 Players in WNBA History while moving an undersized post player who started during the 2009 WNBA Finals into the lineup to fill the hole. That assessment could apply to both the Seattle Storm and the Los Angeles Sparks.

Not long after the Storm learned Lauren Jackson would miss an extended period because of a hip labrum injury, the Sparks saw Candace Parker go down with a gruesome-looking right knee injury. Parker avoided damage to her ligaments, but did tear the lateral meniscus, requiring arthroscopic surgery that is expected to sideline her around six weeks.

Like the Storm, Los Angeles is experienced in playing without its star player. Parker missed the last 24 games of the 2010 season after season-ending shoulder surgery, yet the Sparks rallied to go 7-5 down the stretch to claim the last playoff spot in the Western Conference before being swept by the Storm.

Even with Parker sitting, there is plenty of talent on the Los Angeles roster. That starts with the veteran trio of Ticha Penicheiro, DeLisha Milton-Jones and Tina Thompson. The three players bring a combined 39 years of WNBA experience and all candidates for the Top 15. Penicheiro is off to a slow start, but her playmaking was crucial in Parker's absence last season, when she led the WNBA in assists for the seventh time in her career - the first since 2003. Thompson, the leading scorer in league history, has yet to step up her point production since Parker went down. She's got 17 points in the last two games on 7-of-22 shooting, but has the ability to do far more than that the rest of the season. Milton-Jones, the role player who was a part of back-to-back Sparks titles in 2001 and 2002, has been L.A.'s leading non-Parker scorer, averaging 12.8 points per game.

What makes the Sparks different from last year's playoff group is the depth on the roster. All 11 players have seen at least 50 minutes of playing time this season, and Head Coach Jennifer Gillom isn't afraid to use any of the 10 healthy bodies on her squad. Sixth woman Ebony Hoffman, a longtime starter with the Indiana Fever, has assumed the same role after Parker's injury. Even without Hoffman, Los Angeles still has three reserves averaging at least five points per game.

The leader of the group is dangerous, shoot-first point guard Kristi Toliver, the team's third-leading scorer at 12.1 points per game. On the strength of 51.4 percent shooting beyond the arc, Toliver has come off the bench to score 15-plus points three times this season. Defenses must also account for the shooting of Australian rookie Jenna O'Hea, who ranks second in the league in three-point percentage at 52.0 percent. As a team, the Sparks are shooting an incredible 43.0 percent from downtown, far and away the WNBA's best mark (Indiana is second at 38.9 percent).

The additional options give Los Angeles enough scoring punch to replace Parker's production. However, she's also missed at the defensive end of the floor, where Parker anchored the Sparks defense with a team-best 1.1 blocks per game. Without her, L.A.'s tallest starter is 6-2. 6-4 rookie center Jantel Lavender has seen sparing playing time despite an impressive outing against the Storm last month in L.A. That leaves backup post LaToya Pringle as the only real shot-blocking threat for the Sparks.

It's too early to really assess how Los Angeles has done without Parker. The schedule has offered the Sparks no favors. They're currently in the midst of a seven-game stretch away from the STAPLES Center. It's not quite accurate to call it a road trip because L.A. has gotten a chance to stay at home in between Tuesday's loss at Phoenix and now, but the Sparks won't have their crowd behind them until July 17. They then finish the month with another four-game trip before the slate evens out with 11 of the team's last 16 games played in Los Angeles.

Just like the Storm a few days later, the Sparks took the Connecticut Sun to the wire at Mohegan Sun Arena in their first game without Parker. On Tuesday, hot shooting carried them to halftime lead in Phoenix before the game unexpectedly turned in the third quarter. The Mercury was on a 16-6 run before a Toliver elbow connected with Ketia Swanier's eye, bloodying her face and inciting the crowd. Los Angeles would ultimately give up four points via the flagrant foul and a pair of technicals and Phoenix never looked back.

The Storm's schedule isn't quite as difficult as L.A.'s, but Saturday and Tuesday mark two of just three home games during the month of July. Head Coach Brian Agler pointed out it's important to take advantage of those opportunities, especially against a Western Conference foe. The Storm currently holds a one-game lead on the Sparks for what would be the last playoff spot in the competitive Western Conference. More than anything, though, the Storm wants to continue to show improvement - especially on the offensive end, where turnovers and poor shooting have hurt the team's efficiency. The Storm also isn't getting enough easy points at the free throw line, a focal point for Agler.

KEY MATCHUP
Hoffman and the Storm's Le'coe Willingham matched up as power forwards during the 2009 WNBA Finals, when Willingham's Mercury got the better of Hoffman's Fever. Now, both players are filling in at center. There are similar aspects to their games, as Hoffman and Willingham are both undersized but skilled at finishing around the basket with the ability to step outside and be dangerous. Hoffman's best game since returning to her native L.A. as a free agent came Tuesday, when she scored 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting and grabbed eight boards. Willingham has been a more consistent presence for the Storm, scoring at least eight points in six of the team's nine games this season.
LAST TIME

From start to finish, the Storm found it difficult to score against Los Angeles June 19 at the Staples Center. The Storm scored just eight points in the first quarter and nine in the fourth quarter as part of the team's lowest-scoring out since the finale of the 2008 regular season. The Sparks pulled away with a 14-2 run in the first half and a 15-4 run across the third and fourth quarters that put the game away.

The Storm shot just 30.3 percent from the field and turned the ball over 22 times. Sue Bird, who scored 15 points, was the lone Storm player to score double figures. Fellow All-Stars Swin Cash and Jackson had a much tougher time as L.A. packed the paint on defense. The two combined to miss 21 of their 27 shot attempts. The Sparks got excellent production from their bench, which outscored the Storm reserves 40-7. Hoffman scored a team-high 12 points and Kristi added 11.

INJURIES

Storm - Center Lauren Jackson (surgery, left hip labrum) is out.

Los Angeles - Center Candace Parker (arthroscopic surgery, right knee) is out.

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