Los Angeles Sparks’ defense key to hot start in games vs. Seattle

LOS ANGELES – The touted rematch between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Seattle Storm turned out to be one-sided Tuesday, as the host Sparks easily overcame the visiting Storm, 74-61.

Candace Parker led Los Angeles with 21 points, 10 rebounds and six blocked shots, while Kristi Toliver added 18 points in a game where the Sparks never trailed. Ann Wauters led Seattle with 15 points.

In Friday’s match up between the two teams, the Sparks overcame an 18-point deficit to win by six. Last night the home team dictated the pace of the game, forcing their opponents into 19 turnovers, outrebounding them and outshooting them.

It was ironic for a team known for its offense, because it was the Sparks’ defense that set the tone for play. They had 12 steals to Seattle’s six, and they limited point guard Sue Bird to five points.

“Defensively, we were stingy, greedy, and all the things you should be on the defensive end, we held them to 39 percent and 61 points. Defensively, that’s a good day’s work,” said Sparks coach Carol Ross.

“Offensively, we’re running a little bit behind there, but our defense is keeping us in it. You find ways to win, and right now our defense is helping us win.”

Guard Alana Beard, who finished with 13 points on the night, agreed.

“We know what we’re good at…and that’s on the defensive end,” she said. “In Friday’s game defense brought us back, and tonight defense gave us the win also. And if we continue to work and to get on the same page on the defensive end, offense will come. We have a lot of people who can score, but when we get our defense better, we’ll have a great team.”

The Sparks started the game with six steals in the first quarter alone. They lead 37-33 at halftime, but broke it open in the third quarter with a 9-0 run, initiated by a jumper and free-throw by Alana Beard, followed by back-to-back threes by Kristi Toliver and Candace Parker. This pushed the lead to 60-45, and Los Angeles never looked back.

The Sparks are now 2-0 on the season and the Storm, 0-2. Bird said Seattle isn’t dwelling on the losses.

“We’re just going to move on and try to get better,” she said. “You don’t want to get off to starts like this, but it is what it is. Each team every year has their own path, their own journey. And unfortunately for this team it’s going to start this way.”

She said the blame didn’t belong to star center Lauren Jackson, who is staying home in Australia for the first half of the season to prepare for this summer’s Olympic games.

“It’s not because Lauren’s gone – it’s about the people in this room,” Bird said. “It’s a new team, we’re getting familiar. It’s up to the people who have been here to help everybody else along and get comfortable with the system, and I don’t know if we’ve done a good job of that.”

Ross emphasized building defense and creating team chemistry when she stepped into the job this year. She acknowledged both endeavors are coming along.

“They are playing well together,” she said. “They enjoy practicing together, playing together. They’re giving the best they’ve got to give at that moment, for each other”

But she pointed out that there is still work to be done.

“Rebounding we’re not where we need to be. It’s something we’ll continue to hone in on,” she said. “(We need to) play harder. I’m going to keep pushing them to play harder and harder and harder, until it’s second nature.”

Toliver, who is one of five returning Sparks players this year, said she is enjoying surprising other teams with her squad’s new-found defense.

“It’s funny, because people don’t expect us to have the same intensity and desire to play defense as we play offense, and I think that scares people,” said Toliver. “I love it.”

The Sparks are on the road next, facing the defending champion Minnesota Lynx Thursday.

Game notes:

  • The Sparks have made a few changes this year: a female play-by-play emcee, no more annoying songs played during game action, and a new player intro video. Although the latter needs a bit more editing, as there is no cameo of team star Parker. The Spark kids dance troupe is also older now – high school-aged.
  • It is odd watching the Storm without Jackson. Wauters, with the same hair color, causes a double-take at first, but she is not nearly as tall as the Australian. Bird seems to be realizing this as well; at one point in the last quarter of the game, she threw a high cross-court pass to Wauters, who couldn’t reach it.
  • Alana Beard, back in the league after a three-year hiatus due to injury, looks great. Besides her 13 points, she had seven rebounds.
  • “I rehabbed like crazy, I worked out like crazy, and LA is the team that gave me a chance. I’m grateful and thankful for that opportunity,” Beard said.
  • Nicky Anosike and Sharnee’ Zoll are out indefinitely due to knee sprains.
  • Ross distributed the minutes between players fairly evenly, which doesn’t bode well for other teams – they run deep.
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