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Sparks Still Peaking Entering the Western Conference Finals: Reflections from Key Arena

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Even for those indifferent (though not irrationally opposed) to the WNBA or the teams playing in the upcoming Western Conference Finals, it should be a series any basketball fan can appreciate because it might be the perfect contrast of basketball styles.

For the uninitiated, the series features the post-oriented play of the Los Angeles Sparks and the perimeter-oriented play of the Phoenix Mercury for whom defense is a formality between field goal attempts.

With MVP candidates Cappie Pondexter and Diana Taurasi playing for the Mercury and Sparks center Lisa Leslie trying to end her career in storybook fashion before handing the league's reigns over to forward Candace Parker, this series should have a little something for everyone.

Suspect a league conspiracy to boost ratings? OK…but I suspect there are far more egregious crimes against humanity than conspiring to provide us with great basketball.

But here’s the best part: nobody can really say that they know what to expect from the Sparks because the Sparks are still peaking after extended health-related absences by their star players. 

So while Mercury fans can legitimately claim, "We have Taurasi, and you don’t", Sparks fans would be perfectly justified in coming back with, "We have an Olympic frontcourt developing a collective identity, and you don’t".

As such, I find it surprising that in a Swish Appeal poll posted on Sunday, 17 of 29 voters (58%) predicted the Sparks to lose in the Western Conference Finals.

Yes, the Sparks have struggled all season. Yes, the Mercury beat them 3 out of 4 times, the exception being a game Taurasi sat out against a Sparks team at full strength on the final game of the season. But that was the old Sparks.

We are just starting to see the Sparks' best basketball…just in time for primetime.

It’s a strange situation when you cannot reasonably use past match-ups to choose a winner of a playoff series…but that’s the case here.

The Sparks team that played the Storm during the playoffs was much different than the one that played in Key Arena during the regular season. Since Phoenix Stan and Ben York have posted solid previews of the series from the Mercury’s perspective, I thought I’d just post some things that stood out as relevant to this series from the Sparks’ first round performance.

Defense wins championships?

When asked about the Sparks’ 26.3% shooting in the 3rd quarter of the Sparks’ game 3 loss to the Seattle Storm, coach Michael Cooper said, "Field goal percentage comes and goes, it’s your defense and even though we shot 26% we were up by 4 with 15 seconds left."

For all the talk about the Sparks’ flaws and inconsistency on offense, this team is fundamentally about defense, anchored by two of the best post players in the game, 6’4" forward Candace Parker and the 6’5" Lisa Leslie.

Without any deep analysis of their defensive strategy, it’s just extremely difficult for an opponent to establish anything inside with that kind of size and athleticism on the interior.

The Sparks led the league in defensive rebounding percentage. Parker led the league in blocks by a sizable margin and Leslie is in the top 10. Although their perimeter players are clearly the weak link, guard Noelle Quinn is a solid perimeter defender.

Of course, basketball is ultimately about putting the ball in the basket more than the opponent, but stopping the opponent from doing so definitely contributes to a team’s ability to win games.

However, the Sparks are coming around on offense as well.

Parker was definitely the MVP of the Sparks’ first round series…but the Sparks also played well as a team.

In his preview post on CafeMerc, Ben York wrote about how the Sparks would need someone other than Leslie, Parker, and Tina Thompson "to step up to counteract the depth of the Mercury." While that is certainly true, that’s happening much more consistently for the Sparks now.

As Mechelle Voepel described on ESPN.com, while Parker’s individual performance definitely stood out in the Sparks’ first round series, they are playing their best team basketball of the year right now. Perhaps not at the level that many observers expected, but they are definitely looking more like a unit. (Note: click here to see a statistical breakdown of how much each player contributed to the Sparks' team effort during round 1.)

What makes it hard to recognize is that different people are stepping up each game.

There are likely a number of reasons for that – people finding their own roles, finally playing together for an extended period of time, and changing match-ups for any given game. Regardless, the Sparks are playing well enough now that you cannot really key in on one player or one approach.

In her interview with Phoenix Stan, Julie Hairgrove suggested that one way to take the Sparks out of their game is to double team the ball handlers.

Julie added this about the Sparks, "They don't move real well on offense so if you go and double they are very stagnant on their offensive end so that helps us. If we're aggressive and active it really takes LA out of their sets."

It’s hard to make any judgment about whether double teaming actually works since the Storm’s defensive rotations have been notoriously slow all season rendering double teaming ineffective in their series against the Sparks.

Still, it’s fair to say that even though the Sparks do get stagnant in their offense quite often, all of their frontcourt players are more than capable passers.

Especially in games 1 and 2, the Sparks did a great job of recognizing Storm double teams and swinging the ball weak side to open scorers, either on jump shots or drives. And players like Leslie and Parker are even capable of breaking double teams on their own and scoring at times.

As York points out, the Mercury "can throw a big lineup on the court" so it would not be as easy to pass over the heads of Mercury defenders.  However, double teaming the Sparks – especially once they get the ball into the post – might actually give them a favor because it puts the pressure on the defense to rotate quickly to defend open players.

So yes, you can try to disrupt the Sparks’ set offense, but they are individually talented enough to adjust and improvise quite well, even if it isn’t pretty.

Part of that is their dominance on the offensive boards, which leads to second chance points.

Not that offensive rebounding alone wins championships, but part of the reason the Sparks can afford being sloppy on offense is that they have two of the league’s top offensive rebounders in Leslie and Parker and are the best offensive rebounding team measuring by the percentage of offensive rebounds they secure at 33.3%.

Again, basketball is not as simple as saying offensive rebounds lead to a more effective offense – you have to make a shot after the offensive rebound. But with Leslie and Parker on the offensive boards – as well as DeLisha Milton-Jones and Tina Thompson – one can probably imagine ways in which the Sparks can score second chance points, a category in which they ranked 3rd in the WNBA this seasonn (12.85/game). Considering that they played without Leslie and Parker in tandem for most of the season, it stands to reason that this is a dangerous team in terms of converting offensive rebounds into points.

Keys to the Series for the Sparks

Hairgrove listed three keys to the series for the Mercury: rebounding, defending the Sparks post-players, and keeping the pace high.

Essentially the Sparks’ keys are the exact opposite: scoring on second chance opportunities, stopping the Mercury guards in transition, and slowing the pace to crawl and reducing the game to something just above a brawl in the paint.

However there is one key that might supercede all of those keys: continuing to come together as a team.

And that’s the key that makes the series most interesting – we can only imagine how good this team can be.