When asked about being named WNBA Player of the Month for regular season games played in May, Seattle Storm forward Lauren Jackson gave a response similar to that which she gave when she won her Player of the Week award on May 24th.
"It's definitely a team award and something that everyone should be happy with," said Jackson. "We've definitely been playing good basketball to date so hopefully we can just continue it and keep winning."
When Storm coach Brian Agler was asked about the award he was a little more boastful about his star forward.
"She's put up some really big time games against some good teams," said Agler. "And you know, I don't know who else they would have given it to."
However, one player who has to be considered monthly for the award is Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker who the Storm will face tonight at 8 pm in the Sunset Showdown at the Home Depot Tennis Center.
Although Jackson's response to her award might seem like her characteristically deflecting attention from herself, the key to beating the Los Angeles Sparks for a second time -- whether the game is played outdoors, indoors, or on some court on the other end of a wormhole -- is going to be team defense.
"We really put a lot of emphasis on our defense and it's important that we stay with that," said Agler. "After the Chicago game -- which was not a very good one -- we sort of got back on task and the last two games have been very good for us."
The key to guarding a player as versatile as Parker, according to Agler, is collectively supporting the individual assigned to guard her, even though Jackson played solid defense in their first meeting on May 16th.
"Candace Parker is a great player," said Agler, when asked about keys to the game. "Lauren did a really good job on her the first time they played, but they have a really talented team around her."
In the first game against the Sparks, Jackson -- with the help of 6'5" center Ashley Robinson -- guarded Parker and held her to 10 points on 4-11 shooting, well below her early season scoring average of 21.5 ppg. However, as Jackson attested to after that game and the team has preached all season it was a team effort. It's an effort made more difficult when the rest of the Sparks are hitting shots.
"To guard a player of her caliber it's just not a one-on-one situation -- you have to make her play in congestion and give as much support to the defender as you can," said Agler when asked about how to contain Parker. "It'll be a task. But what makes it tough to guard her is they have a lot of other good players around her so you can't really give a lot of focus off too many of their good players."
In Parker's first two seasons, the Sparks were a very post oriented team that relied heavily on the interior game of Parker and retired WNBA legend Lisa Leslie. However, the type of personnel that a defense has to focus on has changed quite dramatically now. One of the biggest changes related to defending Parker this season is the Sparks' improved perimeter shooting.
In 2009, the Sparks were last in the league in three point shooting at 29.7%. After making a conscious effort to improve that situation in the off-season -- including taking a gamble and drafting University of Mississippi shooter Bianca Thomas in the first round, who they subsequently waived -- the Sparks are now 5th in the league in three point shooting at 33.7%. A large part of that is improved early season three point shooting from guards Betty Lennox (42.9%) and Noelle Quinn (50%) and forward Tina Thompson (47.8%) in addition to the addition of second year shooter Kristi Toliver (33.3%). In the first quarter of the first game against the Sparks, the effect of the newfound shooting ability was obvious.
Common sense would dictate that having four players shooting that well would spread the court for Parker to work inside. However, what makes Parker so dangerous -- as Agler alluded to -- is her ability to attract defenders and then recognize and pass to open shooters. That's what hurt the Storm when they opened their season against the Sparks on May 16th: the Sparks shot 46% (7-15) from the three point line in the first three quarters of that game before cooling off and going 0-3 in the fourth when the Storm made a comeback to win 81-67. Even if she doesn't pick up the assist because the shot is missed or the ball swung again, her ability to facilitate from the post is obviously huge.
Of course, adding Ticha Penicheiro to the mix doesn't exactly hurt either. Penicheiro recorded a remarkable 10 assists in 13 minutes before sustaining an ankle injury in last night's 90-89 loss to the Phoenix Mercury. The team was 17 points better with Penicheiro on the court and her ability to run the offense and create open shots for those three point shooters is obviously a big part of what they try to do. If she's is unable to play against the Storm tonight, it could be devastating for a 1-5 Sparks team that is still searching for some consistency against the 6-1 Storm.
No matter who's able to play tomorrow, the Storm's focus -- as usual -- is clear: success begins with defense.
"I think that we just played good team defense -- I think that's going to be crucial," said Jackson. "I think that's the cornerstone of our game -- when we play good defense, we generally win games."
And as the recently passed UCLA legend John Wooden once said about defensive teams, "It's never boring to do well."