Shifts in momentum are among the strangest things in basketball, sometimes so intertwined with psychological factors that it’s hard to explain precisely what happened.
And there’s every reason to resist pegging a change in momentum like what happened in the first quarter of the Los Angeles Sparks’ 93-77 loss to the Phoenix Mercury on Saturday to one rather unspectacular play.
But the play that Mercury post Nakia Sanford made to get the Mercury their first field goal of the game was not only a turning point, but also emblematic of a problem that plagued the Sparks throughout the game.
The first three and a half minutes of the Sparks’ loss was a perfect example of what makes it hard to either count them out of the playoffs or figure out how they’ll get in.
They executed about as well as you could expect any team not named the Minnesota Lynx to perform on the road.
Up 12-2, their offense was clicking close to perfection, spacing the court well to set up cuts to the basket with Ticha Penicheiro beautifully spreading the ball around to her teammates to find the best scoring opportunity and keeping the Mercury’s defense off balance. Rather than Candace Parker dominating play, DeLisha Milton-Jones was the beneficiary of many of those baskets, navigating space to find gaps in the Mercury’s defense. Defensively, they weren’t perfect, but holding the Phoenix Mercury without a field goal even for that long says something – however small – about their defensive effort.
But most impressively, they looked like a team confident in who they are and the advantages they hold over opponents, a mark of any successful basketball team at any level.
Then it just disintegrated, literally coming apart at the seams.
With about 6:30 left, Mercury post Nakia Sanford got an offensive rebound and missed a putback opportunity. Then she got her own offensive rebound in light traffic and scored the Mercury’s first field goal.
Those were the last of her four offensive rebounds on Saturday. And as she finished with more fouls and turnovers than points and rebounds, it was almost as though she had fulfilled her offensive purpose for the night and went about focusing exclusively on defense. But, of course, she wasn’t brought to the Mercury for her scoring prowess because they have that in spades. After the Sparks came up empty on the next possession, Diana Taurasi hit a three and then it was on or off, depending on your perspective – the Mercury outscored the Sparks 24-9 over the next stretch to take a 26-21 lead with minutes left in the second quarter.
The Sparks did actually get back to some of what made them so effective in the first quarter not too long after halftime. Yet the game was ultimately a 91-65 blowout after 6:30 in the first quarter, with lacking defense and unsustainable offense being the primary culprits for the Sparks.
The Sparks began committing turnovers, standing around on offense, and – perhaps most noticeable of all – relying heavily on star forward Candace Parker to create something almost out of nothing.
“She knows that she can get you on her hip, you are done.”
What immediately seems to stand out about the Sparks since Parker’s return from injury as opposed to the way they were playing prior to her injury is that they’re relying very heavily on her in losses.
In her 32-point performance against the Mercury, Parker was responsible for 42.7% statistical production and that hasn’t been a winning formula for the Sparks.
Yet it also makes a lot of sense.
We laud Seimone Augustus’ smooth mid-range jumper, Sylvia Fowles’ dominance in the post when she gets the ball on the block, Cappie Pondexter’s ability to get to the bucket one-on-one, and Diana Taurasi’s fearlessness in shooting the ball from the perimeter. Nobody in their right mind will tell you Parker does any one of those things as well as the aforementioned players, but her skillset is diverse enough that she can make similar plays at any given moment depending on the matchup.
Parker’s ability to get the ball on the block, fake right and go up with her left just outside of the paint, makes her among the hardest to guard players in the league. That’s not even to mention her improving ball handling and passing – there are few players in the league, including many point guards, who would even bother to face up and play with the ball right in front of Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings as Parker did in just her second game back from injury.
She’s represents what makes the WNBA a great brand of basketball to watch: versatility that makes the standard positional designations we use look confining to the point of pointlessness.
There are times when it even appears that she knows she can beat her opponents in so many ways at once that the choices themselves become more burden than benefit; on rare occasions, the simplest plays will get lost in the array of possibilities that might include dribbling out of a double-turning-triple team or lulling a player to sleep with a back and forth dribble to set up a move to set up a fadeaway jumper just because she can.
But that’s sort of the point, too: she can do all of that, so giving her the ball and letting her do her thing makes sense.
Still, someone else has to step up.
Although the Sparks have too many veterans to get caught standing around and watching Parker, they’re effectively relying on Parker to make something happen by standing around with everyone looking to go one on one so often. And in a situation where everyone is looking at everyone else to make something happen, Parker is usually going to be the player with the next best opportunity to score.
The Sparks have had an up and down last eight games, with a loss to the Tulsa Shock as a low point and their win against the Indiana Fever as a high point. And at first glance, the numbers seem to suggest that the Sparks are losing games when Parker is just doing too much.
8/18 vs Ind
18 pts, 6 rebounds, 5 assists
8/20 at Minn
18 pts, 8 rebounds, 3 assists
8/21 at Tulsa
23 pts, 9 rebounds, 1 assist
8/23 at Washington
19 pts, 9 rebounds, 5 assist
86-82 (OT) W
8/26 vs Tulsa
7 pts, 7 rebounds, 0 assists
8/28 at Seattle
19 pts, 14 rebounds, 2 assists
8/30 vs Seattle
27 pts, 7 rebounds, 3 assists
9/03 at Phoenix
32 pts, 3 rebounds, 1 assists
Candace Parker’s contributions to the L.A. Sparks over the past 8 games.
Ignoring that pair of Tulsa games as outliers (for the moment), Parker has been responsible for more than 33% of her team’s production in three losses. In the remaining wins, she’s been under 34%. But just for some perspective, no player in the league is responsible for more than 30% of their team’s production this season (Chicago Sky center Sylvia Fowles leads the WNBA at 29.95%) – Parker is putting up MVP-caliber numbers just for the Sparks to play .500 basketball with their playoff hopes on the line.
So just in watching them play this season and watching what happened against the Mercury, it might make sense to say that they can’t win simply with Parker doing everything. Then again, two out of seven games is significant (excluding the Dream game in which she didn’t start) so it seems that maybe there’s something else going on.
Inconsistent complementary players
Most playoff teams have a consistent core of 2-3 players that contribute consistently, win or lose. The Sparks have yet to find that combination in Parker’s return.
Against the Mercury, Kristi Toliver complemented Parker with 23 points on a career-high 6-for-10 3-point shooting. In their win against the Seattle Storm in the game before that, it was Ebony Hoffman and Tina Thompson who combined for 23 points. In their loss against the Storm prior to that, it was Penicheiro who complemented Parker with 15 points and 10 rebounds with Toliver not being one of their top four most significant contributors.
In their loss against the Shock, it was DeLisha Milton-Jones leading the way with 24 points and 8 rebounds with neither Hoffman nor Toliver being much of a factor. Noelle Quinn was arguably the second biggest contributor statistically against the Washington Mystics, but has recorded DNP-CDs on a few occasions during this stretch. Against the Lynx, it was rookie center Jantel Lavender who finished as that secondary player.
Part of all of this – as Quinn’s erratic playing time embodies – is simply a matter of finding a rotation after a coaching change and the Sparks just haven’t. Regardless, they’re not getting consistent production from any player beyond Parker. Milton-Jones has arguably been that second consistent contributor possibly along with Ticha Penicheiro, but what’s evident is they’re getting other contributions almost at random with Parker forced to be superman every night.
And it’s connected to what we saw against the Mercury: they’re just not a consistent team. They stopped doing what worked against the Mercury almost immediately after Sanford’s rebound(s) and putback and had it not been for career-high 3-point shooting from Toliver, they wouldn’t have even been as close as they were later in the game.
The fourth quarter was among the most egregious examples of the Sparks’ inconsistency with Parker and Toliver being the only players to even hit a field goal. That negates the one thing that the Sparks have done this season in wins: finish with a better shooting efficiency than their opponents.
And outshooting opponents helps, although it didn’t against the Storm or (to a lesser extent) the Shock. More significant, quarter to quarter, is holding opponents beneath their average shooting efficiency.
The need for defensive continuity
There isn’t really any objective standard for evaluating a team’s defensive performance. Any good defensive coach will tell you that great defense is about taking away an opponent’s strengths and forcing them to win by relying on their weaknesses; no defense will stop a team on every play, but great defenses will find a way to dictate what the offense does on many plays.
Weak defenses, in contrast, are constantly reacting to what their opponents are doing. This is the struggle of finding a single metric to measure defense: a great defensive team will hold an opponent under their averages in the Four Factors rather than holding an opponent under a particular standard or league-wide average. Switching to the college level for a moment, the way former UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell envisions defense is more of chess match than a unilateral defensive policy, where they’re out to systematically dismantle what their opponents are attempting to execute. And even for elite, stifling defensive teams, no two defensive performances will necessarily look the same because they’re goal is to adjust for matchups.
There are times when the Sparks are actually a very good defensive team: the fourth quarter in their loss to the Storm; much of their win against the Storm; for stretches of the first half against the Fever.
And three and a half minutes against the Mercury.
But after that first stretch on Saturday, the Mercury got more than their normal share of uncontested layups and far too easy putbacks against the Sparks. In that second quarter alone, the Mercury beat the Sparks 8-0 in second chance points and 12-0 in fast break points despite not committing a turnover. But that wasn’t even the worst of it.
The Mercury killed the Sparks on the boards 46-27. It’s not that they did anything the Mystics or Minnesota Lynx can’t do, it’s that the Mercury don’t usually beat anyone that badly on the boards – that was their largest rebounding margin of the season. Candice Dupree grabbed a franchise-high 19 boards. The Mercury beat them on the offensive boards 38.89% to 13.51%, with Sanford’s four offensive boards leading to a team-high 20.30% offensive rebounding percentage individually. The Sparks didn’t even coming close to boxing out Dupree or DeWanna Bonner on multiple occasions and really weren’t a factor at all on the offensive boards after the first quarter (explained, in part, by the number of long jumpers they took).
But those type of defensive problems are more about effort than strategy, which is part of what makes the Sparks so agonizing to watch given that it’s obvious that they’re capable of more.
On Saturday, for example, Sanford got the Mercury’s first three field goal attempts. Taurasi had one shot in the first four minutes before hitting that three. The Sparks rotated well, contested shots, and prevented the Mercury from finding easy scoring opportunities, deliberate shot selection notwithstanding. There were even times when Sparks players jumped out to deny passes.
It was a similar story against the Storm, with the Sparks doing what so many teams have done this year in forcing the Storm into turnovers (in the first half of their win) and jumpers (fourth quarter of their loss). They can pressure guards and clog the paint. Unlike many truly bad defensive teams, the Sparks have played – and nearly won games – with very good defense in stretches where they are forcing opponents into spots that aren’t advantageous.
Uneven defensive intensity – not necessarily an inability to play defense – is what seems to be plaguing the Sparks. Against the Mercury they brought their intensity at the beginning the game, against the Storm it was the end of the game. Against the Shock they fell apart at the end of the game, against the Fever they got off to a terrible start.
There are those who will pin that on coaching or maybe the age of members of their starting lineup. But it’s just as easy to argue that they simply need to decide to defend, just like they can decide to play outstanding offense, or Parker can seemingy decide to absolutely take over a game.
So what of tonight’s game against the Silver Stars?
It doesn’t usually take much work to determine why a team isn’t more successful – there’s almost always some consistent difference between wins and losses that explains the outcomes quite clearly even if the reason for the problem is unclear. But the Sparks are unpredictably inconsistent; it seems as though a single play can light a fire under their players or extinguish it.
And what makes it so troubling is what Parker said on a recent ESPN telecast: in fighting for their playoff lives, it shouldn’t be so hard to find the motivation to play their best.
Common sense suggests that someone has to win the rebounding battle between the Sparks and San Antonio Silver Stars tonight (7:30 p.m. PST on NBA TV) and that could end up deciding the game.
But otherwise, the outcome of the game will be determined by which Sparks team shows up: the one that decides it wants to play defense or the one that wants to watch as Parker seeks to win games for them.