L.A. Sparks make defense their focus

Following the Sparks’ first back-to-back losses of the season, first-year head Coach Carol Ross had something prepared for her team a few hours before their next game. Several players later referred to it as their first “wake-up call” of the season.

At the team’s Monday morning shootaround, Ross said there’d be no shooting. Instead she ran five-on-five defensive drills.

It puzzled her players, but the practice also sent a message that this year’s team, win or lose, will be focused on how it competes defensively. The plan worked, with the Sparks forcing 25 turnovers in a 31-point win over Washington that night.

Two night’s later, it was their 12 blocked shots — nine by Candace Parker — that led to another big scoring output and paved the way for the Sparks (9-3) to improve upon their best start since 2008.

“Our defensive intensity was at a lull, and … was affecting our offensive productivity. Sometimes you have to shake the foundation to get everyone’s attention,” said 14-year veteran DeLisha Milton-Jones.

The numbers show that Ross’ strategy is working, so far.

As of Thursday, Los Angeles leads the WNBA in blocked shots (6.0 per game) — swatting nearly twice as many as a year ago — and ranks fifth in steals (9.2), two more per game than last season. Indeed, the Sparks also are forcing more turnovers and allowing fewer points as well.

Players say it’s a byproduct of the mentality Ross brought to the team from Atlanta, where she was an assistant and her teams were among the best in the league defensively. It’s an attitude L.A. has begun to adopt.

“Every night might be different with our offense, depending on how our shots are falling,” rookie forward Nneka Ogwumike said. “But defensively, we can bring it every time. And we’ve really bought into that.”

Ogwumike, a 6-foot-2 forward from Stanford and the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, has also made a big difference on defense, Ross said. Placing her next to All-Star Parker gives the Sparks a mix of length and athleticism on the defensive end in the post.

Although the pair are averaging 35 points a game, Ross said, for her team to fully embrace a defensive focus, it has to start with her two young forwards.

“I think, really, that’s our only focus right now,” Parker agreed. “Just play hard on defense, rebound the basketball, and the rest will take care of itself.”

So far, it has. The Sparks have scored at least 90 points four times this season — already more than they managed last season — and have done it with a simple, free-flowing offense and an intense focus on defense.

After Monday’s non-shootaround, the team scored 101 points against the Mystics. But the biggest compliment Ross would give her team after the win was to say, “That was some of the best defense I’ve seen in a long time.”

Despite a strong start, Parker pointed out that the team started 4-1 last season, before missing the playoffs. But there’s a sense in the locker room that something has changed this year.

“This team overall does have a different feel, a different attitude,” point guard Kristi Toliver said. “Last year, we didn’t play smart defense, and really, we didn’t play hard, either. This year, we’re playing smart and hard.”

The Sparks haven’t missed the playoffs in consecutive years since the 1997-98 seasons. And though Milton-Jones said this team is not quite the picture-perfect example of championship teams she’s played on in the past, she believes they’re on the right path.

Even if it takes more non-shooting shootarounds to get there.

“I think we all got the message,” Milton-Jones says, laughing.