Los Angeles Sparks 92 @ Tulsa Shock 89
Lineups: Los Angeles stayed with the big group that has produced better results recently, with Candace Parker at small forward and point guard Lindsey Harding coming off the bench. Kristi Toliver was back from her obligations with Slovakia in EuroBasket Women 2015 qualifying to give them an extra reserve option. The only player still missing from the Sparks is guard Candice Wiggins, still recovering from surgery on her left knee. Tulsa have their own backup guard out with Riquna Williams still struggling to return from her bruised knee. Forward Tiffany Jackson-Jones hasn’t played all season after surgery on her shin.
Story of the Game: LA were on top throughout the first half. Tulsa couldn’t find their range from outside, so the only points they produced were when they found their way through LA’s still relatively porous defense. At the other end, the most impressive element of LA’s offense was their balance. For once they weren’t relying on one player getting hot and carrying them – instead they were playing with good energy, and everyone was chipping in when they had the chance. Eight Sparks saw some playing time in the first half, all of them had at least one field goal, and LA led by 15 at the break.
But then there was the third quarter. Oh dear. Sparks head coach Carol Ross can use the tape of that ten minutes to shame her team whenever she feels the need to wake them up for the rest of the season. The LA defense was flat-out embarrassing in the third, giving up so many layups that the game just became a procession to the hoop for Tulsa. Over and over again, Skylar Diggins and Odyssey Sims were driving right through the lane and finishing at the basket, with defenders waving at them as they went by – and the help behind virtually nonexistent. Credit Tulsa for coming out strong from the locker room, but LA were playing a central role in their own downfall. Their 15-point lead was wiped out in under seven minutes.
LA actually produced a little decent offense of their own in the third, using Parker as a passer to Nneka Ogwumike on high-low link-ups after the ball was rotated back up from the wing. And Parker was also passing nicely when the Sparks got out on the break, where she always loves to bring the ball up the floor and fling it around. But a game they’d been dominating was a contest again because of their dismal team defense.
The start of the fourth didn’t go much better for LA, as Parker was twice in a row found desperately wanting on the defensive end while Jordan Hooper drilled threes. That’s a matchup that’s meant to be a mismatch in LA’s favour, but we really haven’t seen enough of Parker on the low block since she started playing so many minutes at small forward. She’s usually across from much smaller defenders, but seems happier trying to face them up or shoot over them, rather than use her significant physical edge. And now she was giving up threes at the other end as well – to the extent that later in the fourth Ogwumike was switched over to chase Hooper around, while Parker moved inside to defend Glory Johnson.
At times this felt like a streetball game, with both teams much more inclined to expend energy running the floor to score than they were to use it getting back to defend. Tulsa led for most of the fourth, but couldn’t pull away. Courtney Paris finished a putback off her own miss with a minute left for a four-point lead, but a Harding jumper, a poor Shock possession that ended in a shot-clock violation, and a lovely bounce-pass from Toliver for a Jantel Lavender layup tied the scores with 17 seconds left. Diggins tried to run the clock down, but it went a little too long when Armintie Herrington managed to poke the ball away and then use LA’s foul-to-give. It left the Shock with only 4 seconds to inbound again and create something, and an off-balance heave from Sims wasn’t close. On to overtime, for the third time in a row in Shock games.
Much of OT was oddly low-scoring considering the poor defense that had been played for most of the night. But Tulsa’s guards appeared to be tiring, and many of those drives that they’d finished earlier in the game weren’t being completed any more. After starting with Harding and Herrington in the backcourt for overtime, Ross made the smart move to introduce Toliver after a couple of minutes, which gave LA some much-needed punch to their offense. She got two at the line after being fouled on a drive, then drilled a big three to take the lead with barely a minute left.
Down two, Tulsa had a chance to tie the game in transition with a Diggins drive, then the chance to take the lead with a great look at a three for Hooper from the offensive board that followed. Both missed. After Harding and Parker added free throws, the game looked over, but a defensive mix-up between Harding and Herrington left Diggins wide open for three, which she drilled. When Parker went 1-of-2 at the line, Tulsa had the ball back, down three, with 13 seconds to play. Diggins got a great look after Sandrine Gruda left her feet and Diggins stepped away from her, but hit the back iron. That was finally it, and Tulsa’s recent success in overtime games had come to an end.
Key Players: LA’s scoring was led by Ogwumike, who finished the game 10-14 for 22 points. As usual, she found many of them on hustle plays and cleaning up around the rim, but she’s also one of the major beneficiaries of moving Parker more to the perimeter. It gives Nneka more room under the basket, and she’s often the one taking passes from Parker at the rim. Jantel Lavender continues to produce points as well, now that she’s being given minutes – although it’d be nice to see Ross use Gruda more to give her starting frontcourt more rest. Gruda can play, and did a decent job in this game in her scant seven minutes – she’s good enough to use more than that.
The cameo from Toliver was vital as well, on her return to LA. Her shot-making remains very important for the Sparks, just to give them something that no one else on their roster can offer. The overseas ventures may have cost her her starting spot, but a sixth-woman role has always seemed perfect for her anyway.
Diggins was once again the primary scorer for Tulsa, often on those drives right down the gut of LA’s defense. Sims was a decent sidekick, and is increasingly playing more of the point guard role while Diggins concentrates on producing off the ball. They still trade off and share the responsibilities, but the positions are becoming a little more defined. Hooper did a nice job as well, not just with her trademark threes, but also with her defense on Parker. Candace didn’t attack her inside anywhere near enough, but Hooper stayed in front of her on the perimeter and made things tough for Parker when she tried to face up the rookie.
Notes of Interest: Ogwumike came out for the second half wearing a face-mask, after taking yet another smack to the head in the first half. It didn’t seem to affect her play, so maybe she’ll stick with it if there are any continuing problems from the hits she’s suffered recently.
It’s time to retire the phrase ‘professional business’ for what Toliver’s been doing for the last month. She was in Europe playing basketball, improving her earning potential for the future by representing a foreign national team. If you can’t be bothered to do the two minutes of research to find that out, stop spouting the Sparks party line instead and just say she’s back.
Connecticut @ New York, 3pm ET. While New York disappointingly lost to shorthanded Chicago on Friday night (failing miserably to contain Epiphanny Prince), that merely dropped them to 1-1 on a run of seven in eight games at home. If they want any hope of salvaging their season, it needs to begin with this stretch. They should match up fairly well with Connecticut in theory, who don’t have an individual creator who can rip you apart along the lines of Prince (unless Alex Bentley returns to her form from a few weeks ago). The Sun are also 1-5 on the road this year, building their strong record back at the Mohegan Sun Arena. New York couldn’t ask for a much better opportunity to pick up a win.
San Antonio @ Washington, 4pm ET. The Mystics have won two in a row after an ugly run, with the first of those victories coming over this same Stars team last week in San Antonio. Rookie center Stefanie Dolson had a great fourth quarter in that game, so Washington may look to her a little earlier in this one, but it’ll be the usual hope to piece together enough points from a variety of sources to win the game for Washington. They’ll be looking for Emma Meesseman to maintain her strong run as well. San Antonio will be without important perimeter scorer Jia Perkins after she strained her hamstring in their last game, and will be hoping that other shooters like Becky Hammon and Kayla McBride can pick up the slack. They definitely have alternatives, but Perkins has often been the one to kick-start their offense – she’ll be missed.
Phoenix @ Tulsa, 4.30pm ET. After going to overtime for the third straight time last night, the last thing Tulsa needed was the hottest team in the West coming into town the following afternoon. While Phoenix’s size and scoring ability are always a problem, fatigue could be the biggest obstacle for the Shock in this one. The Mercury have won four straight since switching to their big starting lineup (and it’s not like they were losing many before that). These teams remain two of the three elite offenses in the league, so don’t be surprised if it turns into a bit of a shootout – assuming Tulsa have the energy to keep firing.
Atlanta @ Indiana, 6pm ET. Two old Eastern foes who know a lot about each other clash yet again, but in differing situations. Indiana have lost five of their last seven, including the last three in a row – all in tight games they couldn’t finish off. Without Tamika Catchings to provide the calming influence and the star who wants the ball in crunch-time, closing games out has been a problem for Indiana at times this year. Meanwhile Atlanta have won seven of their last eight, and are sitting pretty at the top of the East, clear of the chasing pack. But they have had some problems lately, with the mesh between their team-offense and Angel McCoughtry’s individual attacks not quite knitting together properly. Indiana will try to exploit that, and as always the fight between Erlana Larkins and Erika de Souza in the paint will be fun to watch. Although Krystal Thomas may have earned some minutes at center after her recent performance defending Brittney Griner.
Seattle @ Minnesota, 7pm ET. A re-match from Friday night, when another disappointing performance from the Lynx against this Storm team saw Seattle take the win. The gameplan for the Storm will be exactly the same – harass the regular scorers for Minnesota as much as possible, give up shots to the bigs around the perimeter if they want them, and hope they can keep Augustus, Moore and Whalen as quiet as possible. Minnesota will try to provide more energy than they did on Friday night, and need to move the ball better and create some transition chances with their defense. It’s the defensive end that’s been letting them down this season, and where Rebekkah Brunson’s absence has been felt the hardest. Janel McCarville, among others, needs to take personal responsibility to keep Camille Little much quieter than the 31 points she scored 48 hours ago.