When the Sparks hosted the Seattle Storm in the penultimate game of the regular season, it provided an opportunity to improve an offense and defense that were starting to click and secure their standing in the WNBA playoff chase. At the time, the Sparks had no way of knowing the type of statement they could make.
Los Angeles scored a season-high against Seattle’s strong defense while coasting to their largest victory of the season, 102-68. Now, just a week and a half later, the Sparks host the Storm in a single-elimination playoff game, with a spot in the WNBA semifinals on the line.
Momentum doesn’t get much stronger than having a 34-point beatdown still in the rear view mirror. The defending-champion Storm — who have been without 11-time All-Star Sue Bird and reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart all season — won’t back down, but it’s hard to imagine their locker room brimming with confidence.
In that win, the Sparks provided a blueprint for beating Seattle. It boiled down to one thing: Candace Parker. While dealing with a hamstring injury, the center struggled when the two teams met earlier in the season, an 84-62 Storm win in June.
Parker, once healthy, proved vital in the late-season win. Guarded by Natasha Howard, the recently anointed defensive player of the year, Parker was active offensively from all parts of the floor.
The 20 points Parker scored were important, but not nearly as crucial as keeping her counterpart occupied. With Howard pulled out of the paint, All-Star forward Nneka Ogwumike feasted on Mercedes Russell, needing just 17 minutes to score 14 points and grab 10 rebounds.
There’s no reason to think the Sparks will deviate from their game plan, as coach Derek Fisher has rejected the notion of holding his cards close to his chest during the regular season.
“You can draw something up that’s great to start the first quarter,” Fisher said. “But there’s 39 minutes and 27 seconds left to go in the game. Now what? You have to be able to rely on the fundamentals.”
Los Angeles also brings home dominance to the table. The Sparks won their final 14 games at the Staples Center, finishing 15-2 at home, tied for tops in the league.
But it’s a double-edged sword. Beat Seattle, and L.A. books a five-game series with the Connecticut Sun, losing home-court advantage to the second-seeded team in the process. Los Angeles has struggled on the road, going just 7-10, while the Sun matched the Sparks home record.
The Sparks know they can’t put any more stock into their own success at home than their potential opponents.
“I don’t think it means anything when you talk about the difference between regular season and playoffs,” Parker said. “Connecticut’s pretty damn good at home too. So I hope that doesn’t continue. I don’t think anybody’s going in [to the playoffs] like, ‘Well, they haven’t lost at home.’ It’s a playoff game.”