Lineups: The same group that we’ve seen in recent games started for Indiana, but Los Angeles had problems again. A sore left knee took Candace Parker out for the second time in four games, and point guard Lindsey Harding was unavailable as well due to a right foot problem. Armintie Herrington started in Parker’s place, and seeing as Penny Toler has as much faith in Nikki Greene and Farhiya Abdi as Carol Ross did – i.e. none – the Sparks only used seven players all night. Toler the head coach would probably have to blame her general manager for having two apparently unusable options on the end of the bench, but if she stormed into the GM’s office to complain it’d probably just get confusing.
Story of the Game: The opening stages belonged to Indiana. LA couldn’t finish anything around the rim, with the Fever managing to pressure them into missing without giving up too many fouls. With their typical level of accuracy from the perimeter, if the Sparks can’t finish inside they’re going to be in trouble. Meanwhile Indiana moved the ball well, bullied their way inside, and generally looked like the team who believed they could win the game, rather than a group wondering where their superstar was.
But there were already hints of how the game was going to turn around. The Fever were starting to give up some pathetically cheap turnovers, which only got worse as the first half wore on. LA’s aggressive pressurising defense played a part, but the Sparks were given encouragement by several Indiana giveaways that didn’t have much to do with the defense. And of course, LA’s offense has been at its best all year long whenever they’ve managed to push in transition. If you allow them to take the ball away from you – or just hand it to them without much resistance – you’re inevitably going to kick-start their scoring. LA only shot 41% overall in the first half, but between steals, fastbreaks, offensive rebounds and free throws earned by attacking the basket in quick offense, they led by four at the break. LA dominated the second quarter, and it felt like they probably should’ve been up by more than that.
The game stayed tight in the second half. Indiana took slightly better care of the ball, trying to run through Erlana Larkins in the low post early on to give themselves a solid foundation. Without the transition chances to feed their offense, LA’s scoring took a step back and they had to come up with some different ideas. It took them a while. Meanwhile Indiana finally came up with the obvious response to LA’s overplaying, aggressive defense – moving the ball away from traps as quickly as possible to open shooters on the other side of the floor. Karima Christmas hit a couple of threes as a result, livening up the Fever offense a little. LA responded through the typical speed and aggression of Nneka Ogwumike, and Alana Beard having one of those unusual nights where she tosses up terrible-looking shots and they all go in anyway.
Lynetta Kizer gave Indiana some offensive pep off the bench in the fourth quarter, keeping the game close. Kristi Toliver had been kept very quiet all night by the defensive attentions of Briann January, Jantel Lavender was anonymous, and Armintie Herrington faded after a strong first half – but Ogwumike and Beard kept LA afloat. Tamika Catchings made plays for Indiana down the stretch, providing the focussed leadership that they were lacking in a lot of close games earlier in the season.
But it was LA who made the last couple of plays to earn the win. Beard hit a jumper for a one-point lead with 90 seconds left; then January and Ogwumike exchanged missed jump shots at either end, before January also blew a finish at the rim under pressure. With under 15 seconds left, and LA running down the clock, Ogwumike smartly slipped behind Larkins rather than setting the expected high screen, Toliver made a perfect lob pass over the top, and Ogwumike finished for a three-point advantage. LA’s defense on the ensuing Fever play was pretty terrible, but they got away with it. January ran a long curl along the baseline before popping back out up top to take the pass and fire for three. The defense basically appeared to lose track of her entirely, but the shot rimmed out. Then LA got lucky again, as Christmas was fouled on the attempted putback, just barely missing the chance for a three-point play that also would’ve tied the game. She made the first free throw, missed the second on purpose, but Ogwumike got to the rebound first (and got bailed out by the refs with an immediate foul call when she was about to toss the ball right back to Indiana). Ogwumike made both free throws to ice the game.
Key Players: Without Parker, it was Ogwumike and Beard who stepped up the most for LA over the course of the game, although Herrington was instrumental in the surge that got them into the game in the first half. It wasn’t an entirely convincing performance by the Sparks, but it was one that at least showed some energy and enthusiasm for the cause. Of course, if Beard doesn’t have one of her rare efficient shooting nights, it might not have mattered.
Even though they made a game of it in the second half, and with a couple of breaks could’ve come away with the win, it wasn’t an encouraging performance for Indiana. The pressure defense that LA unsettled them with in the first half was the sort of harrying that the Fever used to upset opponents with, rather than succumbing to it themselves. Catchings led their scoring, with positive stretches from Larkins, January, Kizer, Christmas and Natasha Howard, but without any real consistency. The Fever are still a team trying to work themselves out and figure out where the pieces all fit. In the utterly mediocre East, they’ll more than likely make the playoffs, but it’s a crapshoot as to whether they’ll produce any decent performances once they get there.
Connecticut @ Atlanta, noon ET (already played, so no preview)
Washington @ New York, 7pm ET. This one’s actually become more interesting in recent weeks. The Liberty have looked a little more lively, won three in a row, and then even gave Phoenix a bit of a scare for a moment or two. Washington have won six of their last seven and quietly snuck into second place in the East. All eight of the Mystics’ remaining games are against their four rivals still chasing Eastern playoff spots, so they’re not going to have any opportunities to relax for the rest of the year. While much of the focus tonight will be on Tina Charles in the paint, the game is likely to be decided by the perimeter shooting. Washington have won recently because they’ve moved the ball better and hit shots; New York are successful when their complementary players offer some support for Charles and Cappie Pondexter. It’s a make-or-miss league, as we know.
Chicago @ San Antonio, 8pm ET. If the Sky are going to be able to force feed Sylvia Fowles in the paint against anyone, they should be able to do it against San Antonio, who don’t protect the paint well at all. But knowing Chicago, we’ll still end up seeing 30 shots combined from Epiphanny Prince and Allie Quigley. Danielle Robinson versus Jamierra Faulkner at the point should be entertaining – pure speed against pure speed.
Seattle @ Tulsa, 8pm ET. Nothing’s a mathematical certainty at this point (besides Phoenix and Minnesota having qualified for the playoffs), but this is as close to a ‘must win’ game as we’ve seen so far this year. There’s a three-game gap right now between San Antonio and Los Angeles in the playoff spots, and Tulsa and Seattle below them looking up. Both teams should be able to score without too many problems in this game. Tulsa can’t protect the rim, so Crystal Langhorne and Camille Little should go to town in the paint; Seattle can’t rebound and have been disappointingly porous on defense all season, so Tulsa will pile up offensive boards while Diggins and Sims drive repeatedly all night. Both sides will likely be counting ping-pong balls at the end of the season, but at least tonight’s winner will have hope for a little longer.
Los Angeles @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. We saw this matchup five days ago, and LA got blown off the floor – even when they had Candace Parker. Considering the minimal likelihood of a Sparks victory whether she plays or not, it’d make sense for Parker to rest her knee for another night, and save her body for games her team has a greater chance to win. On the second half of a back-to-back, LA did the necessary work to ensure the split by beating Indiana last night. It’d be something of a success if they could just manage to keep this one competitive for a while and avoid being embarrassed like they were last week.