If the WNBA playoffs started today, then tonight's matchup between Phoenix and Los Angeles would be a foreshadowing of the western conference first-round 2 vs. 3 pairing.
One cog to the L.A.wheel is that of rookie guard Andrea Riley, who has shown both signs of struggle and flashes of brilliance over the closing weeks in the regular season. The 8th pick of the Sparks is small in stature but big in heart, presence and mind on the court. When she left Oklahoma State as the all-time leading scorer - men's or women's - and the Lieberman Award winner, many doubted that her game could translate effectively into the WNBA. And some are still doubting. But for Riley this bumpy ride has not swayed her confidence.
Riley points towards learning from one of the best, Ticha Pinichiero, as something that has improved her effectiveness on the court. Aspects of the game that she is still working on include even the simplest tasks like paying attention to a 24-second shot clock and not walking the ball to halfcourt. The differences between college and professional basketball require an immediate thirst for learning in order to get acclimated.
"I learned that some of the stuff you did in college, you have to start over as soon as you get here," Riley said. "You're like a freshman all over again."
Riley's freshman season at OSU, while still very successful, was not by any means her most productive.
"I feel like I'll be more comfortable in everything next year because that's when it does take - after the first year," Riley said of the learning curve.
Collegiately, Riley more than doubled her shot attempts and field goals made after having a year under her belt with the Cowgirls. Her field goal percentage was at a career-high 41.8 percent her second year under head coach Kurt Budke. She got to the line and stole the ball exponentially more, at a clip of a 73 percent increase in her sophomore season. She more than doubled her production for beyond the arc and nearly doubled her points per game, going from 12.8 to 23.1.
If the transition really does "take" after the rookie season and college trends hold true, Riley could be a vital piece of the Sparks offense come next season. But now - she's trying to help the team in any way possible from her role on the bench.
"What my coach tells me is just to go out and play and my teammates really motivate me because they know that sometimes it's kind of hard as a rookie," Riley said of her on-court mentality. "At the same time you have to just learn how to just go with the flow."
"It's been fun," Riley said of the transition. "It's been a lot of learning and a lot of adjusting and I really like my teammates. It's just a fun little atmosphere to be in."
The fun atmosphere will only continue to grow should the Sparks retain a position in the ever so tight playoff race.
"A lot of teams have been going up and down, up and down," Riley noted about L.A.'s precarious position. "We just want to be one of those four teams to get into the playoffs."
"I think that we've been through a whole bunch this year," Riley reflected. "I mean, Candace (Parker) is gone, Betty (Lennox) is gone, so I think that we have a whole lot of motivation and we just have to pick up our levels of aggression."
Aggressive play will be necessary when facing off against the defending-champion Mercury tonight at home. The task won't get any easier after Phoenix though, as another contender for the playoffs, the Minnesota Lynx come to L.A. on Friday and the season ends with the number-one seeded Seattle Storm.
For someone who's attitude has been a vital part of her game, Riley suggested that it will need to become integral to the team in order to not only reach the playoffs, but to achieve success when arriving to the postseason.
"I think we just have to go out with a winning attitude and not worry so much about who do we have to beat and things like that," Riley said of the Sparks' upcoming contests - including tonight. "I think when we go out without thinking that it really turns our game up to another level."
Tonight will show just what level L.A. has set their game to, and playoff-bound is what's permeating the mind of Riley.