Los Angeles again? Seriously?
No, the Seattle Storm doesn’t play the Los Angeles Sparks in the WNBA playoffs every year. It only seems that way.
For the third consecutive season and fifth time in eight years, the Storm and Sparks will meet in a first-round playoff matchup, with Game 1 tipping off at 8 p.m. today at KeyArena. Game 2 will be Saturday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and – if necessary – Game 3 will be Tuesday at KeyArena.
The Storm (28-6) is the top seed and has the WNBA’s best record, but history is with Los Angeles (13-21). The Sparks have won the four previous playoff series against Seattle, going 8-3, and they knocked the Storm out of the postseason in each of the past two years. In fact, Seattle hasn’t won a playoff series since it won the WNBA championship in 2004.
And don’t let the fact that the Storm was 5-0 against the Sparks this season, including a one-point win at KeyArena in the season finale Saturday night, fool you. The Sparks have won the regular season head-to-head with Seattle just once in the past six years, only to handle the Storm after the playoffs begin.
“The only thing that’s the same is the colors,” Storm guard Sue Bird said. “They’re a completely different team than they were last year.”
Indeed, the Sparks are a different team. Gone is legendary center Lisa Leslie, who retired at the end of last season. Also missing is star forward Candace Parker, who was lost earlier in the season with a shoulder injury. The Sparks also will be without former Storm star Betty Lennox, the 2004 finals MVP for Seattle, who is out with a knee injury.
The Storm is a different team, too, than it was when it played the Sparks in the playoffs the past two years. In both of those series, Lauren Jackson was unavailable due to injury. Now Jackson, who ranks third on the league’s career scoring list, is healthy and ready to lead her team on a deep playoff run.
“I feel good,” said Jackson, who averaged 20.5 points and 8.3 rebounds this season. “It feels like it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to help the team (in the playoffs).”
Though Seattle has dominated the Sparks this season, it’s clear that Los Angeles is a different team now than it was earlier in the season, when it was learning to play without Parker and Leslie. The Sparks rallied from 12 points down in the fourth quarter on Saturday and lost to the Storm, 76-75. After starting the season 4-13, Los Angeles went 9-8 in the second half of the season.
“As the season goes on, you find what works for you as a team,” Bird said. “Every team is going to do that. … They got over the hump of figuring out how to play without (Parker), who the go-to’s were going to be. You’re seeing more of a complete team.”
The key matchups will be in the frontcourt, where Jackson, Swin Cash (13.8 points) and Camille Little (10.1 points) will go against Tina Thompson (16.6 points), DeLisha Milton-Jones (15.4 points) and Noelle Quinn (10.2 points). Thompson, who won four WNBA titles with Houston and is the league’s career scoring leader, averaged 15.4 points and 6.8 rebounds against Seattle.
Storm coach Brian Agler said his biggest concern is the Sparks’ wealth of experience. Thompson, Milton-Jones and point guard Ticha Penicheiro – who led the league in assists – are all playoff veterans.
“They’re at a point where they’re going to do what they have to do,” Agler said. “Those types of teams end up being pretty good. They’re mentally tough, and they execute.”
Agler said it took the Sparks a while to figure out their identity without Parker.
“They had too many people trying to do too many things early in the year,” Agler said. “Now they really understand what their roles are. They don’t try to do too much, and they let their key players make plays.”
Seattle Storm Gameday
Los Angeles Sparks at Seattle Storm
What: Game 1 of Western Conference first-round playoff series (best-of-three)
When: 8 p.m. today, KeyArena
TV: ESPN2 Radio: 1150-AM
Scouting report: The winner advances to the best-of-three Western Conference finals against the winner of the Phoenix-San Antonio series. … Seattle has a major home-court advantage, setting a WNBA record with a 17-0 mark at KeyArena. … The Storm won all five games against the Sparks this season by an average margin of 79-68. … Los Angeles will be without star forward Candace Parker (shoulder) as well as former Storm guard Betty Lennox (knee). … The Storm is 3-8 all-time against Los Angeles in the playoffs and was eliminated by the Storm in the first round of the postseason in each of the past two years and three of the past four. … Seattle hasn’t won a playoff series since it won the WNBA title in 2004. … Lauren Jackson missed the past two postseasons with injuries.