Los Angeles, CA—With eyes lit up, stalking the basketball with a sense of urgency, one would expect from a WNBA Finals game, Alana Beard’s ferocious block within the first 20 seconds of the game set the tone — and emphatically answered any questions as to whether a Sparks team that had already locked down a No. 2 playoff seed, would check out early and turn their sights to the postseason.
Warding off any signs of complacency, Beard and the rest of the Sparks defense, made disrupting passing lanes and fiercely contesting perimeter shots their business today, en route to a convincing 81-70 victory over the Connecticut Sun.
“I think we were just trying to win and set the tone going into playoffs,” said Candace Parker. “We’ve done something this year that we haven’t done in years past. We’ve won every series against every team. And even though we’d already won the series against Connecticut, we wanted to set the tone for the playoffs.”
Setting that tone — and exerting their will for all 40 minutes — was made possible by LA’s commitment on the defensive end. The Sparks raced out to a blistering 14-2 start by capitalizing on a block, a couple of steals, and getting valuable stops that created extra possessions for themselves.
Aside from turning defense into points, the spirited Sparks’ defense made sure Connecticut enjoyed an anemic day at the office offensively. They held rising star, Jonquel Jones, to only three points in the first half and the entire Sun squad to a dismal 31% shooting from the field.
“I think we’re starting to get a really good feel of what we want to do defensively,” said Sparks head coach Brian Agler. “I liked our energy. I liked our focus. We didn’t create very many turnovers in the first half, but we did a much better job of that in the third quarter. We want to put pressure on people at their offensive end.”
And when Coach Agler says they did “a much better job” creating turnovers in the third quarter, that’s an understatement. The Sparks came out of half and forced eight turnovers in the third stanza alone.
Overall, they forced 17 Sun turnovers, which yielded 28 points of offense. When asked what the difference maker in today’s contest was, Sparks forward, Nneka Ogwumike, tipped her hat to guess what? Their opportunistic defense.
“Our focus on defense for sure. We helped each other,” said Ogwumike. “It wasn’t all one-on-one guarding. There is so much skill on their roster 1-5 and even on their bench. We had to play team defense, and we were able to capitalize on a lot of the turnovers we caused.”
Another reason the Sparks defense proved so catalyzing today, was that the aggression they showed in getting stops, carried over to their performance on the glass, and fueled the aura they brought to the paint. They owned a 56-20 advantage inside, while gashing their way to a 14-3 edge in fast-break points. Sun guard, Jasmine Thomas, had nothing but praise for the relentless defense and execution, that allowed Los Angeles to maintain a double-digit lead for the remainder of the game.
“They’re long, so they make passing lanes pretty tough, and they were challenging us to make shots from the outside,” said Thomas. “Courtney got a good rhythm, but for the most part shots weren’t going in. And then they cleaned up the defensive boards. So they played a percentage game, and we didn’t make them pay by giving up those rebounds.”
Today’s clash could be an early preview of a semifinal playoff matchup between the Sparks and Sun if Connecticut advances in a single elimination game next Sunday against either Seattle or Washington. Despite being swept in the regular season series, the Sun are treating the postseason as a clean slate.
“With as bad as we played today, we lost by 11,” said Thomas. “They scored 28 points off of our turnovers, so we know that it’s a few more shots going in, more focus, more playing together as a team, and we’re right there. So for us right now, it’s kind of a refresh. Now it’s just time to take care of Game 1. While we hope we’ll see them again, we need to focus on our next game.”