Hours before the Minnesota Lynx began their stunning 24-0 first quarter run en route to an impressive road victory over the Seattle Storm last Thursday, I had written about 3/4 of an article about their home-and-home with the Los Angeles Sparks.
I chose not to publish it for a simple reason: as impressive as the Lynx were in their first three games - including a 75-65 win over the Tulsa Shock that was not quite as close as the score suggests - facing the defending WNBA champions on the home floor where they hadn't lost since 2009 seemed to be a good way to figure out just how good they were after splitting with the Sparks.
And although I had already thought the Lynx were impressive - and gaining momentum - none of this is to say that their mostly dominant performance over the Storm was predictable; I'm willing to bet that the 25+ point differential that the Lynx established through three quarters was more of an aberration than lasting statement.
Instead, I'd suggest that as of right now, the Lynx' split against the Sparks is a far more telling indicator of how impressive the team is right now. So before looking at the Lynx' early season strengths and weaknesses through the lens of their Sparks' games, looking at the Sparks' 98-84 win over the Phoenix Mercury is actually helpful to put what the Lynx did in context - the Sparks are a pretty impressive team in their own right.
Key statistic: The Sparks won in spite of poor offensive rebounding
Rebounding was a problem for the Sparks last season and since outrebounding the Lynx on opening night, the Sparks have had 12 offensive rebounds over the last two games, including three quarters without an offensive rebound (the first half against the Lynx and the first quarter against the Mercury) and one additional quarter (third quarter against the Lynx) with only one offensive rebound. To put that in perspective, the Sparks averaged a league-low 7.64 offensive rebounds last season - they've averaged six over their last two games.
A lack of offensive rebounding wouldn't be a huge problem if they were keeping opponents off the offensive glass, which has been a struggle as well - they are allowing the second most total rebounds per game in the league (37.67) and have allowed healthy offensive rebounding percentages for their opponents in both their rematch against Minnesota (39%) and Phoenix (36%). As one can imagine, allowing so many offensive rebounds would give opponents second chance point opportunities.
All of that is not to say that the Sparks are in trouble, but that they have played rather well over the course of their first three games even with their rebounding difficulties. And that all starts with the fact that they've integrated superstar forward Candace Parker nicely into the style of play that made them a noticeably better team at the end of last season.
Key player: Sparks maintain late-2010 ball movement with Parker back from injury
The Sparks were at their best at the end of last season when they were moving the ball much better and point guard Ticha Penicheiro was more efficient than any point guard in the league, but coincidentally without Parker (e.g. possibly attributed to Penicheiro's health, increasing comfort with coach Jennifer Gillom's system, etc.)
So what immediately stands out is that the Sparks have started this season exactly where they left off last season, have been getting increasingly better, and Parker is at the center of it.
Against the Mercury, the Sparks had their best synergy rating of the season at 1.26, assisting on 66.67% of their field goals, which is even higher than their league-high 64.4% assisted field goal ratio from last season. And while Penicheiro had her typically superlative performance with a pure point rating of 7.52, Parker has been making plays more efficiently and from more places around the court.
Parker's five assists and two turnovers - in addition to her game-high 22 points - was good for an assist ratio of 18.46 and turnover ratio of 7.3%, which amounts to an impressive pure point rating of 3.50. Although her 18.50% defensive rebounding percentage (6 defensive rebounds) wasn't overwhelming, her ability to get the ball off the boards and push the ball in transition was also a major asset (for any team) that makes her even more of a matchup nightmare. Right now, she's averaging a career-low 1.67 turnovers per game through three games; if she can maintain the efficiency with which she handles and distributes the ball, the Sparks will be a far more dangerous team than they were at the end of last season.
And with the team shooting 42.3% from the three point line on the season they're even more difficult to stop.
Sparks statistical MVP: Tina Thompson's shooting efficiency poses another threat
The Sparks are shooting nearly 10% better from the three point line this year, which obviously spreads out the defense and is partially due to newcomers Ebony Hoffman (50%) and Jenna O'Hea (40%) as well as Kristi Toliver shooting 57.26%. But Tina Thompson stands out as a player who exemplifies the team's versatility moreso than any other player on the roster.
Against the Mercury, Thompson scored 21 points on 7-for-11 shooting from the field and 4-for-7 shooting from the three point line for a game-high true shooting percentage of 85.22%. But with three assists and no turnovers, she also had a pure point rating of 6.06 and contributed on the boards with a team-high three rebounds.
But what the combination of shooters and passers around the perimeter did most is simply making it difficult for Mercury defenders to rotate and find Sparks three point shooters - on more than one occasion, Sparks shooters were taking threes uncontested or getting pressure about a half-second after they'd released their shot. When the shot wasn't there 1 or 2 extra passers, led to someone else getting a shot and the team ultimately shot 46.4%.
Whether that has more to do with the Mercury's poor defense or the Sparks' prowess perhaps remains to be seen. But either way, the Mercury have plenty to work on.
Mercury statistical MVP: Candice Dupree's 12 points, 11 rebounds a bright spot
One thing the Mercury have been trying to do early this season is to establish a post game, but it hasn't been particularly efficient - Kara Braxton has not been particularly consistent inside and Dupree is at her best in transition situations and early offense, among the best in the league.
But for whatever reason, Phoenix has not been very good at handling the ball early this season - in the second quarter against the Sparks, they turned the ball over 7 times (36% of their possessions). They never found their rhythm and they found themselves down 14 at halftime.
You have to figure (or hope) that the Mercury will get better - Diana Taurasi will not go 2-for-9 consistently.
But the Sparks are a team that has been among the best in the league so far because of their versatile set of core players - including DeLisha Milton-Jones - a "supporting cast" that spreads the defense for them to go to work in the halfcourt as well as transition and an elite point guard who keeps things running almost as smoothly as anyone could want.