Los Angeles, CA—With the chance for Minnesota to clinch the No. 1 seed in the playoffs with a win tonight, the stakes were raised on an already compelling match-up. But let’s be clear—while numbers matter and teams are certainly jockeying for playoff positioning, contests between the Sparks and Lynx come down to pride.
And nights like tonight — with the game on ESPN2, a rowdy Staples Center crowd, and even Russell Westbrook watching courtside — are valuable opportunities to set the tone for the post-season. Los Angeles did just that in a businesslike fashion, dominating the Lynx, 78-67.
“It’s always nice to play a real competitive game and play well when you have a big crowd,” said Sparks head coach Brian Agler. “I think it was good for TV.”
The Sparks defense has prided itself all year on creating turnovers; yet, inconsistency on the offensive end had sometimes prevented them from turning those opportunities into points. In fact, Los Angeles had garnered a reputation earlier in the year for building comfortable leads only to watch it slip or have to pull it out in dramatic, down-to-the-wire fashion.
Sunday evening was completely different as a brilliant Sparks offense, that gashed the Lynx in transition and dominated a physical team in the paint, proved to be the difference maker tonight. Los Angeles took a 46-32 lead at halftime and were able to maintain that double-digit lead for the remainder of the night thanks to sustained execution offensively.
A comprehensive offensive effort like tonight was a product of several factors, but the spotlight belonged unquestioningly to Candace Parker. Her 24 points led all scorers on the night, but it was the way in which she did it that allowed her to be so contagious. She was aggressive in the lane, but she also toyed with Lynx defenders on the perimeter—as if daring them to give her any room to put up a signature “CP3” jumper.
Watching a 6’4” Parker ferociously grab a rebound, and then streak down the court with her handles, is a sight to see. It is precisely that rare combination of size and athleticism that forced a fatigued Lynx defense to make choices, and she made them pay.
“When Candace really plays aggressive she can score and really facilitate,” said Coach Agler. “She did both of those along with rebounding tonight so when she’s like that, then we are very, very good.”
The offensive clinic Los Angeles put on isn’t complete without giving Chelsea Gray and Odyssey Sims their due. Gray, who seems to get more confident by the day, continues to grow before Coach Agler’s eyes. She put up 16 points and six rebounds.
The scary part is that the offensive awards tonight don’t stop with Parker and Gray. Sims played scorer as well, taking it to Minnesota for 12 points, often going coast to coast or slicing the Lynx defense in the half court. Her insertion into the starting lineup after the All-Star break has been one of the secrets to the Sparks’ success over the second half of the season.
“She’s extremely helpful for us,” said Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike. “She brings a little different flavor than Chelsea does, even though they both do some of the same things very well. She really contributes to getting the ball inside.”
The Sparks’ offensive outing tonight is summed up by their dominance in both fast break points and the paint. They owned a 17-4 advantage in transition and also outscored Sylvia Fowles and company 46-38 in the paint.
“We got defensive stops and finished off the plays,” said Sparks guard Alana Beard. “So anytime we’re playing in transition and getting into our secondary break, we’re extremely hard to defend.”
Los Angeles handed themselves a wealth of extra possessions thanks to shut-down defense, but it was what the Sparks offense did with those precious opportunities that determined their fate against the league’s best. Balanced scoring and flawless execution ultimately ended Minnesota’s night on a bitter note. Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve was less than pleased.
“Our defense was atrocious in the first half,” said Coach Reeve. “And our guard play was atrocious. Alexis Jones came in and gave us some good things, but that was about it from the first half.”
The battle for the No. 1 playoff seed continues as the Sparks face Atlanta on Friday at 10:30 pm while the Lynx play the first of their remaining three games on Wednesday at 7 pm ET against Indiana. With the win, Los Angeles is now only half a game behind Minnesota.
“This journey has got its highs and lows and obviously today is not one of the highs,” said Lynx guard Maya Moore. “But we are gonna take it and make sure we use it to make us more prepared in the playoffs.”