Los Angeles, CA -- When I walked into the Galen Center at the University of Southern California Wednesday morning to watch the Los Angeles Sparks practice, the first team was running through their offensive sets.
In true Sparks fashion, it involved lots of slicing and dicing toward the basket, with bunches of no-look passes sprinkled in, and chatter so loud I could barely hear the voice of first-year head coach Brian Agler calling out plays.
And from the moment I arrived, forward Nneka Ogwumike stood out to me. She was by far the loudest player on the floor, slapping high fives, giving her teammates props, checking in with her coaches to make sure everything was copacetic. She was locked in.
"I try my best to create a contagious atmosphere in terms of how I approach the game with aggressiveness to my teammates," Ogwumike said after practice. "We worked our way back into this, and it has to be worth something."
The ‘this' Ogwumike is referring to, of course, is the playoff race itself. At the end of July, the Sparks were a lackluster 6-14 and the playoffs for Los Angeles seemed like a pipe dream. However, guard Alana Beard returned from injury, forward Candace Parker came back from a July respite, and the Sparks were given new life.
Much of that can be attributed to Parker, who's averaging a double-double every night and at least one moment that makes you say, "how on Earth did she do that?!"
Adler recognizes Parker's influence goes beyond the scoring and razzle-dazzle, though. "It's her ability to defend, distribute the basketball and rebound. This year she's really done a good job of bringing the best out of her teammates."
As the Sparks whip the ball around during those offensive sets at practice, it's easy to see why they lead the league in assists per game at 18.3. They thrive when they are going fast, and succeed when they make the extra pass.
Even so, the Sparks will face a formidable opponent in the Minnesota Lynx, a team they went 1-3 against in the regular season. But Ogwumike says it isn't their high-octane offense that's going to give them the best opportunity to compete in the three-game series.
"We have such an offensive arsenal on our team, but our defense is really what's going to hold our team together."
We'll see tonight when the Sparks visit the Lynx at 9 pm EST in Game 1.