Storm-Sparks Playoff History
2002 - Los Angeles 2, Storm 0
On paper, it was a clear mismatch. The Sparks entered the 2002 postseason top seeded in the Western Conference after a 25-7 regular season. The 17-15 Storm, by contrast, was happy just to be in the playoffs after being 10-13 with nine games left in the season. The Storm was led by rookie Sue Bird and 21-year-old sophomore Lauren Jackson and had a combined eight games of playoff experience. Los Angeles was the defending WNBA champions.
Bird and the Storm exceed expectations just by making the postseason in 2002.
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On the strength of the season series, The Seattle Times picked the Storm to pull the upset in three games, but it quickly became apparent that the postseason would be a different beast entirely. Los Angeles took a seven-point lead at halftime and, with the Storm still threatening, put the game away with a 20-3 run midway through the second half. Getting 24 points from Lisa Leslie and 23 from Mwadi Mabika, the Sparks outshot the Storm 55.9 percent to 35.2 percent and held Seattle to 23.8 percent (5-of-21) from downtown.
"They gave us nothing," Head Coach Lin Dunn told the Times. "Absolutely nothing."
Two days later, the Storm traveled to L.A. in a must-win situation. The game was a defensive struggle, the two teams combining to shoot well south of 40 percent from the field. The Sparks frustrated Jackson, who shot 1-of-9 from the field and had more fouls (five) than points (four). However, thanks in large part to a 17-point effort from center Kamila Vodichkova, the Storm got within two on a pair of Jackson free throws with 2:32 to play. Then, the Storm went scoreless on its next three trips downcourt while a Tamecka Dixon three-point play gave Los Angeles some breathing room. The Sparks finished off the Storm by a 69-59 final.
While Los Angeles went on to repeat as champions, the Storm's season came to an end. Still, the Storm could take solace in a surprising season that established a foundation for the team that would win the championship two years later.
"As disappointing as it is, I see the future and there is a lot of promise in it," said Bird. "This was still a successful season because we got into the playoffs."
2006 - Los Angeles 2, Storm 1
By the time the Storm and Sparks met again in the playoffs four years later, they did so relatively as equals. After all, it was the Storm who had the most recent championship, won two years early. And the Storm stayed strong the following season while L.A. endured a coaching change and an up-and-down campaign.
Despite a big series from Lauren Jackson, the Storm fell agonizingly short to the Sparks in 2006.
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"We've said all along that we match up well with L.A.," said Donovan. "Whether it was L.A. or Sacramento, we just feel like we have to go in ready and play good basketball."
In Game 1, the Storm did just that. Going into the fourth quarter, the hosts trailed 59-57. The game was tied at 61-all when Jackson headed to the bench due to restrictions on her minutes. Without their star, the Storm's reserves rallied and unlikely hero Tiffani Johnson buoyed a 7-0 run before Jackson returned to the game. Behind a raucous KeyArena crowd, the Storm finished out an impressive 84-72 victory. Jackson scored 22 points and grabbed nine boards, but it was Johnson's 10 points and four boards that made the difference as the Storm outscored Los Angeles 27-13 in the fourth quarter.
The scene then shifted to STAPLES, where the Storm hoped to finish off the series in a sweep. The team looked well on the way to that outcome during the first half, leading by as many as 15 before the Sparks went into a zone that prompted frigid outside shooting. The Storm went from the 5:39 mark of the second quarter to the 2:12 mark of the third without a field goal, allowing Los Angeles to reclaim the lead. It was 64-63 Sparks with a little over seven minutes left when the Storm embarked upon another drought, this one lasting nearly four and a half crucial minutes. An 8-0 Sparks run proved the final margin in a 78-70 loss.
More devastating for the Storm was the sight of Bird walking off the floor holding the nose she had broken each of the previous two seasons. It was a major relief, then, when a specialist revealed the following morning that Bird had merely suffered a contusion. She was cleared to play wearing a protective facemask.
The winner-take-all Game 3, again played in Los Angeles, would prove an epic. Through three quarters, the Storm was as lost against the Sparks zone as in the final 25 minutes of Game 2, trailing 54-40 heading to the final 10 minutes of basketball. That's when something clicked, the Storm going on an improbable 12-2 run. Then, heartbreak. Six times in the final three minutes, the Storm took possession with a chance to tie or take the lead. The team converted on only one of them, a Jackson score to make it a one-point game. The stretch was especially rough for Bird, who missed three shots and split two free throws when she could have tied the game by making both. The last shot went to Betty Lennox, who missed a potential tying three with a second left as the Sparks escaped with a 68-63 victory.
Jackson had 19 points and 10 rebounds in a valiant effort, but the Storm could not overcome a rough shooting night for the backcourt (Bird and Lennox combined to shoot 8-of-32 from the field) and 29.9 accuracy as a team.
"It hurts," Lennox told the Times. "We're hurting and I don't know what other words to say. I can believe it because it's over, but it's hard. It's a hard pill to swallow."