Los Angeles, CA—“Champions do hard things.”
Those were the words uttered by Magic Johnson to the Los Angeles Sparks before last year’s Game 5 of the WNBA Finals. The Sparks certainly took notes, because not even a physical Phoenix Mercury team, led by Brittney Griner, could force them to give an inch on their home court.
An early eight-point deficit? The Sparks said no problem. Champions do the hard things. Multiple Sparks players hitting the hardwood at the hands of physical plays from Griner and Monique Currie? Fine. Champions are willing to do the things others won’t.
Unaffected by the adversity, Los Angeles used a dominant third quarter—offensively and defensively—to turn a 42-42 stalemate at halftime into a crucial 79-66 Game 1 victory.
“It went just how I thought it would,” said Sparks head coach, Brian Agler. “You’ve got champions over there. You’ve got two players that are going to be Hall of Famers in Diana and Brittney…It’s going to be physical. That’s just going to be the nature of this series.”
Turning our gaze to the game-changing third stanza when Los Angeles made their move, adjustments were made on both ends of the floor. Going a dismal 2-of-10 from three-point range in the first half, the Sparks took the battle inside. In fact, Los Angeles started the second half on a 6-0 run behind three straight finishes at the rim from Chelsea Gray, Ogwumike, and Parker.
“They started posting us up and making shots,” said Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello. “They got to the free-throw line…We controlled it fairly well in the first half, but they got 40 points in the paint. They find ways to get seams, whether it’s guard penetrations or post-ups.”
The tone of aggression that the Sparks set out of halftime translated into a merciless 40-16 advantage in the paint by game’s end. But the third quarter glory belongs to more than simply heightened offensive production.
The Sparks defense did what they do best—got stops and forced Phoenix to make mistakes. They held a potent Mercury offense scoreless to the 6:00 mark of the third frame and created 10 turnovers in the second half alone. Griner ultimately finished with 18 points but was held to just four in the final two-quarters.
“We thought Brittney was really playing at the pace she wanted to play at in the first half and that they were comfortable offensively,” said Coach Agler. “At halftime, I thought that we needed to up our intensity and create some opportunities for our offense. We created some turnovers, got some layups, and got going a little bit.”
Of course, credit to the Los Angeles defense has to include mention of the 2017 Defensive Player of the Year—as announced today—Alana Beard.
Tough assignments against the league’s most explosive scorers are her forte. She held Minnesota’s Maya Moore to 10 points just a few weeks ago. And tonight was no exception as she frustrated Taurasi to the tune of only six points of offense.
“The way she competes every single day, every single possession. It’s a little bit of a lost art,” said Taurasi. “There’s no one you would pick to go into games, or try to win a playoff series or a championship game with other than Alana, because she’s the glue that makes these teams really, really good. It’s her grind and her grit that reflect at the end of the game.”
While Beard’s role as a defender, scorer, and leader are universally recognized across the league, her teammates are in the most unique position to assess her impact.
“We’ve witnessed it since she’s been with the Sparks, every single day,” said Sparks center Parker. “In the first half, she got hit, she got knocked down, she was on the floor. She didn’t lay there. She got right back up and went and found Diana [to guard]. That just speaks volumes of who she is.”
The image she depicts of Beard—as a selfless warrior, undenied by momentary pain—is emulated by her teammates, who consider her the “head of the snake” as Ogwumike noted in the post-game press conference.
So really that speaks volumes about who the Sparks are as a unit. Getting back up and doing their job is just what they do. After all, champions do the hard things.
Phoenix will get some much-needed rest, and the series continues on Thursday night at 10 pm ET at Walter Pyramid at Long Beach State.