With the majority of their rotation in tact, most WNBA fans probably expected the L.A. Sparks to have an easy time with a visiting Chicago Sky team that has had a string of health issues that most wouldn't wish on their most hated team.
Yet it was smart team defense by the Sky and the dynamic play of rookie point guard Jamierra Faulkner that ultimately stole the show to earn a 90-83 win at Staples Center on ESPN2 tonight.
After mounting a 12-point lead with 6:35 to go in the first half, the L.A. simply fell apart with the third quarter being a complete disaster.
Offensively, the Sparks seemed to be completely unfamiliar with the notion of a zone defense as they stood around without ball movement or cutting, allowing Sky defenders to simply stand in their 2-3 formation and watch the Sparks launch perimeter shots and attempt to make one-on-one plays. The result was a 31.6% shooting effort from the Sparks in the third quarter in which they neither took a shot at the rim nor made a basket from anywhere in the painted area. Despite an impressive line in the box score with 22 points on 9-for-15 shooting, Candace Parker had just two points in the third quarter as her Sparks teammates struggled to even get her touches.
Meanwhile, the Sparks allowed the Sky to shoot 75% from the field in the third quarter as Faulkner calmly identified the post player she'd like to beat out of a pick-and-roll and sped by bigger, yet flat footed, players after futile attempts to switch screens. Faulkner, a third-round pick in the 2014 WNBA Draft, had 8 of her game-high 27 points in the third period while looking like the biggest star on the court.
In taking a 64-57 lead into the final period of the game, the Sky effectively won the game in the third quarter despite the Sparks eventually discovering the value of ball and people movement.
Although Faulkner was the highlight of this one, forward Jessica Breland also deserves credit for her work on the boards: Breland finished with a game-high 11 rebounds to go with 10 points and 4 assists against the highly-touted Sparks frontcourt. Despite the ESPN commentators describing the first half performance of Sparks stars Parker and Nneka Ogwumike as "dominant" for combining for 29 points on 13-for-18 shooting, far less attention was given to the fact that Breland had 8 of those boards in the first half while the Sky had twice as many offensive rebounds (6) as their opponents (3). Ultimately, it was the Sky who finished the game with the dominant paint performance with a 39-24 rebounding advantage and 44-32 advantage in points in the paint.
There's no way to describe this other than saying that the Sparks were thoroughly out-played and out-coached on their home floor on national television, highlighting flaws that keen fans have been harping on all season as a team that some considered a contender now finds themselves just a half game out of last place in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, for all the injuries the Chicago Sky (8-8) have suffered through, they've managed to stay at .500 and second in the conference with tonight's win.