After two straight games of fourth quarter defensive lapses, the Seattle Storm entered last night's contest focused on playing a full 40 minutes of defense and finishing games.
In last night's 80-60 win over the Los Angeles Sparks at Key Arena, the Storm pretty much determined the outcome of the game before the Sparks even got started.
After forcing the Sparks into a 24 second violation on the first possession of the game and Sparks guard Ticha Penicheiro hit a driving layup for the first score of the game, the Storm proceeded to showcase the balance of their starting lineup with an 8-0 run before a Sparks timeout. Two Candace Parker turnovers and steals by Camille Little led to Storm layups by Lauren Jackson and Swin Cash. Sue Bird hit a jumper and then Little got the first of her career-high 5 steals that led to a failed Tanisha Wright fast break attempt before Wright actually got herself on the board with a jumper.
"They just came out really aggressive, but that's their style," said Sparks forward Tina Thompson who finished with 10 points on 4-8 shooting, most of which came in the third quarter. "They come out really aggressive with a lot of energy, trying to push the score up against whoever they play. At that point, we just didn't match their intensity."
It just continued after the Sparks timeout with 6:44 left as Bird showed how dangerous she can be as a scoring threat with another jumper and a three, scoring 7 of her 15 points in the first quarter. Although Jackson would finish with a team-high 17 points, Bird's aggression as a scorer and floor leader combined with the Sparks five first quarter turnovers set the tone for the game and created a 20-7 gap.
"I told Sure that tonight's one of those games - because I was concerned with how we might start - I just felt like we might've been a little bit lax, we took two days off, and came back into practice. I just didn't know how we'd start the game. So I just encouraged her to be aggressive from the beginning. You got to make things happen and people will follow your lead. That's what happened."
The Storm maintained their 13 point lead through halftime, which made their dominance feel far worse than the score indicated because the lead started to seem insurmountable - every time the Sparks appeared to make a push, the Storm just seemed to reassert their dominance as the top team in the Western Conference.
"If you look at the first quarter, we separated our selves and it was pretty much even until three or four minutes in the game, score-wise," said Agler. "It hovered around that 10-15 mark back and forth. I just thought we had good concentration. I don't think we played perfect by any means but I think we had a real good solid game."
It wasn't all a matter of scoring - part of it was the intensity and physicality of the Storm's defense, something Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom said that she needed to contend with prior to the game.
"We just didn't match their physicalness and that's just something we have to learn as a team - teams hit us, we gotta be able to hit back," said Gillom.
Of course, maintaining the lead was a collective effort, but a large part of that effort was due to the hard work of Camille Little inside. After their previous concern about maintaining defensive intensity for 40 minutes, it was the Storm's offense that fell back to earth after a string of games in which they shot 50+% in significant minutes. After shooting 61.1% in the first quarter, their shooting percentages slowly declined as the game got sloppier and more physical.
"It was just getting a little chippy and it happens," said Little. "We play each other so many times that it's hard not to get chippy...It happens, it's part of the game, and you just have to keep playing."
Free throw shooting ended up being their saving grace while their shooting percentages dipped as the team overcame 36.4% shooting and a turnover percentage of 36.08% in the third quarter by shooting 13-16 from the free throw line. In the fourth quarter, they overcame a game-low 35.3% shooting with the combination of better rebounding and ball control -- giving up 0 offensive rebounds and committing only one turnover - but also shooting 5-5 from the free throw line. At the center of that free throw shooting effort was Little.
Storm statistical MVP: Camille Little
Little shot 7-10 from the free throw line in the second half, including 5 for 8 from the charity stripe in the third quarter. So although her final line of 13 points on 2-3 shooting might not immediately leap out at you as the team's fourth leading scorer, the efficiency with which she scored - scoring points without costing the team possessions in the form of missed shots is among the most efficient ways to score - was vital for the team, especially considering their second half shooting struggles.
As usual, Little sort of brushed off her balanced 13 point, 5 steal, 4 rebound, 3 assist and 1 turnover performance as nothing special.
"I just try to be aggressive anytime I can and when I see an opportunity I try to take it," said Little. "Those times I just made the right decisions."
However, in multiple interviews with both teams, Little's name came up in some way or another as a key player in the game. When asked about what Little brings to the team, her Storm teammates usually describe her as a focused blue-collar team player who does the little things that don't show up in the box score. However, last night might best embody what Little brings to the team because her contributions did show up in the box score quite strongly.
"She's just a force to be reckoned with," said Jackson. "Defensively she's amazing - she's everywhere. She's really stepping in there, getting rebounds and things like that. So she's just been really stepping into her role real well. I'm really proud of her - she's just been unbelievable."
Sparks statistical MVP: Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton
This might be a bit of a surprise with Parker as the leading scorer with 13 points on 6-12 shooting to go with 7 rebounds and Thompson having a fairly solid game, but Wisdom-Hylton quietly had a career-high 10 points on 4-4 shooting off the bench in addition to 4 rebounds. 6 of those points and her 2 offensive rebounds came in the second quarter, when the Sparks played even and had by far their most statistically productive quarter with Wisdom-Hylton playing the entire quarter. After the Storm dominated the first quarter, Wisdom-Hylton's play in the second was critical in their effort to stabilize things, if only a little bit.
Key Player: Sue Bird
Bird had a solid game with 15 points, 5 assists and no turnovers. Although she did nearly half her scoring in the first 8 minutes of the first quarter, her role running the offense is immeasurable to the team.