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Insider Preview: Storm at Los Angeles

HEAD-TO-HEAD
7-8 RECORD 11-6
W-1 STREAK W-1
4-1 LAST 5 2-3
70.1 PF 82.6
95.7 Off. Eff. 103.5
72.3 PA 81.8
98.8 Def. Eff. 100.4
30.3 RPG 36.1
.461 Reb % .513
72.1 Pace 79.9
6.4 Exp. Wins 8.9

Storm at Los Angeles
Saturday, July 7, 7:00 p.m.
STAPLES Center
TV: ESPN2
Radio: 1090 AM

Kevin Pelton, StormBasketball.com


When the Los Angeles Sparks are good, they can beat anyone in the league. When they struggle, they can lose to anyone in the league. Over the first month and a half of the 2012 WNBA season, we've learned that no one has a wider range between ceiling and floor than the inconsistent Sparks.

Los Angeles started the season 7-1, including three head-to-head wins against the Storm. The only loss in that span was a game the Sparks led at Minnesota before losing by eight points to the league-leading Lynx. Los Angeles capped the run by going into Connecticut and handing the Sun its first home loss of the year. At that point, the Sparks looked like the biggest threat to the Lynx.

Just two days later, L.A.'s five-game winning streak ended in ignominious fashion with a 33-point blowout in Atlanta. After a loss at San Antonio, the Sparks bounced back with three wins over lesser foes. However, their issues resurfaced over an ugly week of basketball. On June 24, Los Angeles lost by 20 at home to San Antonio. Two nights later, they suffered a 16-point loss at Tulsa. The Silver Stars extended the losing streak to three games with a win that gave them a 3-0 advantage in the season series.

The Sparks' season switched course again on Thursday, in their Kids Day game against the Lynx. Behind a combined 57 points from Candace Parker and Kristi Toliver, Los Angeles nearly led start to finish and fought off a late Minnesota comeback for the 96-90 win, just the third against the Lynx in 2012.

We won't know until game time which Sparks team the Storm will face Saturday on ESPN2. Make no mistake, Los Angeles has been two very different teams in wins and in losses. The Sparks' average victory has come by 10.3 points, while their average loss has been by a lopsided 17.4 points. (By contrast, the Storm's averages are 10.1 and 13.1.)

All three Los Angeles stars show wide splits in wins and losses. Parker, the Western Conference Player of the Month for July, has been the team's most consistent presence. She's scored double figures in 14 of her 16 games and has 10 double-doubles. Yet even Parker has been much better offensively in wins (averaging 21.3 points on 51.2 percent shooting) than losses (15.8 on 45.2 percent from the field). Rookie Nneka Ogwumike, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 Draft, goes from 42.1 percent shooting in losses to 59.0 percent in wins.

No player's performance has mirrored the team's effort more closely than Toliver, who has enjoyed a breakthrough season starting at point guard. Toliver's scoring average jumps from 12.0 points per game in losses to 19.5 in wins. Her shooting percentage is 50.4 percent in wins, just 36.8 percent in losses. With few other ballhandling alternatives - the only other point guard on the roster is Andrea Riley, newly signed to a seven-day contract - the Sparks depend on Toliver to make good decisions with the basketball. She's alternated brilliant performances, topping the 20-point mark seven times, with nights where she struggles.

Los Angeles' defense, too, has shown the Jekyll-and-Hyde personalities. The Sparks have gone undefeated when holding opponents in the 80s or below, 10-0. Their problems have come when teams get in the 90s, which has happened all too often recently. Los Angeles is 1-6 in such games, that lone win coming on Thursday against Minnesota. With the Sparks struggling to get stops in the man-to-man, first-year Head Coach Carol Ross has been forced to play zone defense on a regular basis.

Like many teams, L.A. has been significantly better at home. The loss to the Silver Stars was the Sparks' first at the STAPLES Center, while they are just 4-5 on the road and have been outscored badly away from home. While that trend favors Los Angeles on Saturday, another one works the opposite direction. The Sparks are 7-0 when they have at least two days between games, but 3-4 playing with one day off (as on Saturday) and 0-2 on the back end of back-to-backs.

The Storm has already lost the head-to-head season series with Los Angeles, but a win Saturday would be important in the context of playoff positioning. The Sparks are tied with San Antonio for second in the Western Conference, three games ahead of the Storm. A road win would leave the Storm poised to make a run at Los Angeles after the Olympic Break, especially as the schedule evens out and Lauren Jackson returns to the lineup.

Technically, this is the last outing of a four-game road trip, though the Storm was home all week before flying to L.A. Friday after practice. The break gave centers Ewelina Kobryn and Ann Wauters to rest their injuries. Both players remain day-to-day, though Kobryn saw more action in practice and seems more likely to be able to go. The Storm could use the size against an L.A. team with a pair of 6-4 posts in Parker and back-to-the-basket center Jantel Lavender.

KEY MATCHUP
Toliver has been particularly difficult for the Storm to stop this season. In the season opener, she came off the bench to score 25 points and lead a Sparks comeback. She had 18 and 23, respectively, in two wins in L.A. and is shooting 55.0 percent overall against the Storm, including 11-of-17 from beyond the arc. The Storm did a better job of keeping Toliver from getting open looks outside during the most recent meeting, which is one key to containing her. Storm counterpart Sue Bird will also want to make Toliver work on defense. Bird scored 15 points in the opener, but combined to shot just 6-of-19 in the two games in L.A. Bird has been in much better offensive rhythm over the last three weeks.
LAST MEETING

The biggest shot of Ogwumike's young pro career sunk the Storm June 3 in Los Angeles. With the game tied at 65 and the clock ticking toward zero, the No. 1 overall pick of this year's draft drove and shot an off-balance runner under defensive pressure from Wauters. The shot went through the net with 2.1 seconds remaining, giving the Sparks the lead. Without any timeouts, the Storm got only a desperation heave from Bird at half court before the buzzer. Ogwumike's shot capped a wild final minute. Los Angeles went ahead twice only for the Storm to tie the score, first on a Katie Smith three-pointer and then when Camille Little tipped in Bird's miss with 5.5 seconds left.

The final outcome ruined a strong performance from the Storm on the road. The teams traded the lead much of the first half before the Storm took control in the third quarter. After a Tanisha Wright jumper pushed the advantage to seven with 4:11 to go, the Sparks clamped down defensively, holding Seattle scoreless for more than three and a half minutes as part of a 10-0 run. The Storm shot 38.7 percent from the field but held L.A. to 34.9 percent shooting. With teammates struggling beyond the arc, Smith supplied needed production with five three-pointers and a season-high 19 points. Bird added 12 points and six assists, though she couldn't find the range, missing seven of her eight three-point attempts. Kobryn was effective off the bench with seven points and three rebounds. Toliver's 23 points and seven assists led the Sparks. Parker (16 points, 13 rebounds) finished with a double-double.

INJURIES

Storm - Centers Ewelina Kobryn (strained right hamstring) and Ann Wauters (small tear, left Achilles) are day-to-day.

Los Angeles - Forward Ebony Hoffman (sprained left ankle) and center Nicky Anosike (sprained left knee) are out.

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