Apologies for the delayed coverage of the holiday weekend’s games. Watching Great Britain’s women’s team swallowed up a lot of my time (please come home soon, Ms Leedham). Rest assured most game analysis will be more prompt over the course of the season. Coverage of Washington-Tulsa, Chicago-Phoenix, Delle Donne, Griner et al will be coming later tonight. First, Sunday’s bloodbath.
Sunday night saw the opening game of 2013 for two teams with very different outlooks on the season. The Los Angeles Sparks have brought back every meaningful piece from a strong 2012 campaign, and added Lindsey Harding to run the point. Their expectations for 2013 are a lot of wins and a deep playoff run, preferably with a parade at the end. Conversely, the Seattle Storm are without star duo Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, have only four rotation players returning from last year, and are hoping to scrap their way through 2013 as best they can. Given all that, maybe the way this game played out shouldn’t have been much of a surprise.
The Sparks opened the game with the lineup everyone had projected since the Harding signing. Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard slid over to shooting guard and small forward respectively, opening space for Harding to take over the primary ballhandling responsibilities. The fears that Beard’s fitness might not allow her to begin the season on time were apparently unfounded. Seattle had Temeka Johnson replacing Bird, with Camille Little and Tina Thompson paired in the post. The only slight surprise was free agent signing Noelle Quinn starting at small forward, leaving second-year wing Shekinna Stricklen to continue coming off the bench.
The opening play of the game was a lovely example of LA starting as they meant to go on. Toliver popped up off a screen, took a feed from Harding, and swished an 18-foot jumper. A pure scorer getting to play off the ball, and being allowed to focus on what she does best.
Seattle were right in this game for most of the first half. They were playing with a little more speed in their step than we’re used to seeing – Johnson likes to push the ball, so that could be a season-long trend – and they were pretty effective offensively. Little in particular was going to work. A backdoor cut that mystified Candace Parker, a couple of nice turnaround jumpers and a pick-and-pop three all dropped for a player who’s become an increasingly versatile scoring weapon. Offensively, Storm coach Brian Agler will have been happy with that first half.
But oh my, Seattle could not do a damn thing to stop LA at the other end. The Sparks were just in full flow, hitting everything from wherever they wanted it. Scarily, a lot of the shots were even the kind of efforts that Seattle would want their opponent to take – long twos, usually with someone closing out on the shooter. But they were all going in. It was simple, two-man game pick-and-rolls from LA, with some good ball movement thrown in, and it worked like a charm. They got decent looks, and the points kept flowing.
Talking of flow, this Sparks team are even more frightening this year in transition. For their first-choice lineup, they’ve essentially replaced a relatively sedate small forward (DeLisha Milton-Jones, or sometimes Marissa Coleman) with a speedy ballhandling point guard (Lindsey Harding). So when they push the ball, there’s an extra player on the floor who can handle and pass, and make it from one end of the floor to the other in about 3 seconds. With hyper-athletic posts like Parker and Nneka Ogwumike flying right along with the Harding/Toliver/Beard perimeter, it’s hard to keep up. Several times in this game, Seattle simply couldn’t.
The Storm were only down 5 a couple of minutes before the break, but a late Sparks run took them in at halftime ahead 53-41. Then the third quarter was where it really got ugly (or beautiful, if you’re a Sparks fan). In no time at all, the lead blew out to 20, then 25, then 30. And while there were still jump shots raining in from the team in gold, there were also far too many defensive breakdowns from the Storm. Help wasn’t where it was supposed to be, or the initial defender didn’t make enough effort to prevent penetration, or they just hacked away and fouled instead of playing solid defense. Garbage time was already well underway before the end of a third quarter that the Sparks won 31-12. LA shot 70% from the floor through the opening 30 minutes of game time. That’s insane.
The reserves played out the fourth quarter, which at least gave us an extended opportunity to see some of the backups perform. Storm rookie Tianna Hawkins had a fairly quiet debut – her major impact before the fourth was getting under Ogwumike’s skin enough to lead to a double-technical call. But there were one or two decent signs in the closing minutes, including a nice jump hook. LA’s first-round pick, guard A’dia Mathies, looked a little out of her depth, driving into dead ends and losing her way at times. Swedish rookie Farhiya Abdi – drafted a year earlier than Mathies, but actually a year younger because of the rules on international players – had some promising moments, showing she can handle the ball and isn’t afraid to take a shot or make the right pass. Marissa Coleman and Jenna O’Hea were hitting shots just as smoothly as the starters. In general, not much went wrong for LA all night.
It seems ridiculous to say, but Brian Agler probably won’t be too upset about this performance, despite his team ultimately losing 102-69. Until the game got out of hand and both teams began to treat it as a glorified scrimmage, the offensive execution wasn’t too bad. They played with some speed, hit some shots, and found some gaps in the LA defense. Even the Storm defense itself wasn’t that horrible for much of the first half – there’s just not a lot you can do when the other team refuse to miss. Obviously, when you’ve lost by over 30 and the game was decided with at least 10 minutes remaining, things haven’t gone well. But the Storm won’t be throwing themselves off a bridge just yet.
LA, of course, will be delighted. The new perimeter worked exactly as intended, Ogwumike and Parker did their jobs as well, and everyone got a lot of rest. Even Coleman had one of her good nights. They won’t shoot like this every time they take the floor, but it’s an immediate warning to everyone else in the league of what they’re capable of. They’ll beat you on the break, they can find good looks in the half-court, and they might even play a little defense. Put all that together and you’ve got a pretty useful team on your hands.