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Defense Defines Sparks Victory Over Silver Stars

If what you like about basketball is high-octane offense, elegantly executed offensive sets, and great scoring performances from stars, then the Los Angeles Sparks’ 76-68 victory over the San Antonio Silver Stars was probably agonizing.

However, there is something equally compelling about the level of defensive intensity that both teams played with last night that seems to add to the drama of transitioning from the regular season to the playoffs.

The type of defense played last night is not only indicative of a level of aggression, grittiness, and tenacity not normally associated with women’s sports, but also makes the anxiety and sense of urgency of the playoffs start to become tangible.

It’s easy to write off last night’s game as merely an example of poor basketball by pointing to the 16-16 first quarter or the Sparks’ abysmal second quarter in which they shot 28.6%. And as with any game there were missed assignments or mental lapses.

Instead, I suggest that the defining element of both halves was the defensive tone that was established early and particularly caught my eye on a play in which Silver Stars center Ann Wauters made a stop on Sparks forward Candace Parker.

It’s rare to see a Rethinking Basketball post focused on defense, which is somewhat ironic considering that I was a defensive specialist for most of my non-descript organized basketball career. As such, this season I’ve been keeping track of defensive statistics, no matter how futile a cause it may seem.

Defense is probably the most difficult thing to analyze in basketball because there really is no reasonable way to assess it without knowing a) the team’s scheme, b) the overall strategy that the scheme is part of, and c) what is expected of each individual within that strategy.

For example, there are times when a team will live with giving up one thing in hopes of shutting down another. Play to play it might look like "bad defense" on the part of a player when it reality it’s a reasonable strategy to win a game given the personnel. What might seem like a lapse in one situation, may be a stroke of brilliance in another.

The Silver Stars used a creative defensive scheme in the first quarter to keep the Sparks off balance, playing a man defense that functioned something like a zone when players switched.

For example, with 8:55 left in the first, Sparks point guard Noelle Quinn set up the offense for the Sparks and initiated the play by dribbling around a Parker screen on the right wing. Normally on a screen such as that against a man-to-man defense, one would expect a simple exchange of defensive assignments in which Becky Hammon who was guarding Quinn would stick with Parker and Sophia Young would switch from Parker to Quinn.

Instead the Silver Stars made a much more complicated move. Young did step up and stop Quinn, who was clearly setting up a play to Parker, who was rolling to the basket. But rather than Hammon picking up Parker, Ann Wauters – who was sagging way off Lisa Leslie -- picked up Parker and Hammon picked up Leslie who was at the top of the key.

Confusing? Yes, and it’s just as confusing if you have to play against it. That’s the point.

And the Silver Stars did it all game to great effect. It wasn’t until halftime adjustments were made that the Sparks were able to really turn a corner.

Of course, part of the Sparks second-half turnaround was a matter of running more of a fluid motion offense rather than standing around trying to merely exploit their size advantage in the post. Nevertheless, what stifled the Sparks repeatedly in the first half was the Silver Stars defense.

But what actually got my attention is when the uber-athletic Parker actually went to make a move against Wauters on the same play.

Parker took two dribbles with her back to Wauters, subtly giving shoulder fakes to try to catch Wauters off balance and make a spin and drop step. When Parker finally did turn and make a drop step, Wauters did not budge and was able to bother Parker’s shot and send it off the far side of the rim strong.

Obviously, this was a combination of good scouting and good defensive strategy that made that entire sequence happen. But the reason it grabbed my attention is that those are the type of defensive plays that don’t show up in the box score and often go unnoticed.

In the second half, it was the Sparks’ defensive intensity that defined the game flow as the Sparks just used their size and physical advantages to prevent the Silver Stars from doing much of anything – finding scoring opportunities, making interior passes, or even cutting through the lane.

Moreover, the Silver Stars didn’t get to the free throw line once in the third quarter, which was a result of the Sparks defense, regardless of whether the game was called perfectly (no basketball game in history ever has been to my knowledge).

Both sides played physical in the post throughout the game and most of the time it was simply a matter of being disciplined enough to hold one’s position, resist the temptation to bite on fakes or wilt at the sign of any potential contact, and being willing to take a hit and not back down.

And despite the obviously strong defensive play exhibited by both teams, the Silver Stars finished the game shooting 44.6%, while the Sparks shot 50%, including 70% in the second half on 19-29 shooting from the field.

When you combine that type of gritty play with strong offensive play you get what I consider the best of basketball.

It’s not just about the pretty highlight reel plays that excite us on the most basic level. It’s the ongoing chess match from play to play of each team trying to one up the other – on both sides of the ball – and constantly making adjustments, forcing their opponents out of their comfort zone, and improvising as a unit to try to tough out a win.

It’s not the prettiest thing for fans to watch, but it’s good all-around basketball that I have great appreciation for. It seems to give the game an edge that draws you into the competition and helps the player’s passion come alive.

And for a junkie like me, that’s beautiful.