Los Angeles Sparks (#2 seed, 24-10) vs. San Antonio Silver Stars (#3 seed, 21-13)
Regular season series: San Antonio won 3-1
06/16 @S.A.: Silver Stars 98-85
06/24 @L.A.: Silver Stars 91-71
06/28 @S.A.: Silver Stars 94-80
08/23 @L.A.: Sparks 101-77
For much of the season, the 2/3 matchup in the West looked like the most mouth-watering potential series. We had three teams all playing impressive basketball, with Minnesota, Los Angeles and San Antonio all winning consistently. Then it all rather drifted away in the final month of the season. Minnesota pulled away at the top, while LA had a horrendous road trip and San Antonio appeared to have forgotten how they built their 12-game winning streak earlier in the year. LA seemed to pull themselves together more convincingly before the end of the year, while San Antonio continued to struggle in all but a couple of games. The difficult question heading into this playoff series is which versions of these teams are actually going to show up.
When they’re rolling, both these squads can be scary offensively. LA have the speed, athleticism and natural ability of Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike in the paint, a tandem that every other team in the league has trouble dealing with when they’re both fully invested. Parker had a series of quiet appearances after the Olympics, and appeared to be playing through a knee injury, but looked like she was emerging from that slump over the final couple of weeks. Ogwumike is a relentless rebounder, she’ll run the floor hard and she’ll fight for everything. On the perimeter, led by Kristi Toliver, they’ve got players who can shoot the lights out when they’re firing. Alana Beard’s offensive game has been improving all season as well, with her accuracy from outside returning, and DeLisha Milton-Jones can still score if you forget about her.
San Antonio have a different kind of attack. Sophia Young and Becky Hammon are the primary scoring threats in the starting lineup, although we’ll also see plenty of threes fired up by Shameka Christon, and point guard Danielle Robinson has added a very consistent mid-range jumper to her speedy driving game. Young’s had a strong year, scoring efficiently in a variety of ways, and crashing the glass better than she has in any season since she was a rookie. But she still has a tendency to fade out of games. That can’t happen in this series, where they need Parker and Ogwumike to expend energy on the defensive end, not just rest while they wait for their next chance to score. Similarly, Hammon has to produce points. She had almost a month of very quiet offensive performances after the Olympics, where she was both taking fewer shots and hitting a poor percentage. Her creation and distribution are important for this team, but they need her scoring as well. LA will use Beard to harass her, and others like Robinson and Jia Perkins will have to step up and attack the weaker LA defenders, but they still need Hammon to lead the way.
The matchups are going to be interesting in this series. The Silver Stars often try to hide Hammon on weaker offensive players, but that’s difficult against LA because Milton-Jones is the natural choice – and she’s so much bigger than Hammon. That either means that you leave Hammon on Beard or Toliver, both of whom will go at her or shoot over her, or you risk Hammon on Milton-Jones and hope that DMJ isn’t in the mood to post up. We’ll probably see San Antonio head coach Dan Hughes try a variety of options, and they’ll undoubtedly try to pressure and trap Toliver to frustrate her into losing her composure and coughing up turnovers, but it’s still going to be tough for the Silver Stars.
San Antonio have a similar problem in the paint, where there isn’t a natural option to guard an invested and active Candace Parker. Young’s quick enough, but a little small; Jayne Appel’s not someone you want chasing Parker out to the perimeter where she starts a lot of possessions; and Danielle Adams would fight Parker inside but have problems with footspeed. They’ll end up using a varied combination, and send plenty of help when necessary, but that creates problems of its own. Help comes over, usually from the other post, and when the shot goes up someone’s wide open to grab the offensive rebound. It’s part of the reason why San Antonio continue to struggle on the glass in a lot of games, despite Young’s rededication to rebounding.
San Antonio do have an advantage in depth, which could prove important. They have Adams, Perkins and Shenise Johnson coming off the bench, often giving a shot in the arm to their scoring and aggression offensively. It also gives Hughes options and alternatives when one or two of his starters aren’t working out. LA’s Carol Ross doesn’t have quite the same luxury. Aussie wing Jenna O’Hea has been a welcome addition since the Olympics, and she does a nice job as a complementary role player who can make the right pass and knock down the open shot. Then they’ll get a few minutes from post Jantel Lavender and wing Marissa Coleman, but neither has proven reliable through this season. LA will be depending on their starting five to carry them through the playoffs. That’s worked for plenty of teams before, but it does mean that the key players have to perform.
Key area to watch: Points in the paint
The obvious way to see this series is as an inside/outside battle. San Antonio like to shoot from outside a lot; LA, despite being led in scoring by Toliver this season, have Parker and Ogwumike (and even Lavender) to score inside. But it’s the reverse side of that battle that could prove crucial. LA’s defense has often left a lot to be desired this season, especially in their rotations against the pick-and-roll, or just basic movement to fill space and help when the initial defender has been beaten. In fact, they were last in the league in conceding points in the paint (despite Parker leading the WNBA by some distance in blocks). So San Antonio need to exploit that potential weakness. The Hammon/Young pick-and-roll was their go-to play for much of the season, but seemed to fade away late in the year. Expect to see a lot of it in this series, and Robinson and Perkins will be running them a lot as well. Young and Adams also need to work inside off cuts and standard post-ups, not just settle for jumpers. Both these teams are better offensively than they are at the defensive end – LA’s frailties are just a little less obvious until you watch where their defense breaks down.
Summary and Prediction
With a 16-1 home record this year and home-court advantage, LA should have a significant edge just thanks to hosting two out of three. But remember, both Games 1 and 2 have been shunted out of their usual venues due to scheduling clashes, which may even the playing field in that area. If this series had come midway through the season, I’d have happily picked San Antonio. They were rolling, working a balanced offense inside and out with so many different weapons that it was hard to cover them all. But in the second half of the season, they seem to have lost their way. A couple of late games suggested that they might be finding it again, but the flashes were brief. After the strong yet inconsistent season she’s had, I hate trusting Parker to dominate anything, but I find it hard to see how Hughes can scheme to cover her and Ogwumike without giving up too much in other areas. His team might shoot their way to a win from the perimeter, or he might out-coach Ross to one, but I expect LA ultimately to be too strong. They eventually found more momentum in the tail end of the season, and I expect that to carry over.
LA 2-0, but 2-1 wouldn’t remotely surprise me.