Takeaways: Sparks persist at home, up 1-0 on Mercury

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 12: Chelsea Gray /

The Los Angeles Sparks kicked off their WNBA title defense with a 79-66 Game 1 victory at home over the Phoenix Mercury.

There’s no point in sugarcoating the lack of flow to Tuesday’s game. The 46 combined fouls, three technicals and far too many reviews had a noted impact on the viewing experience.

One can only hope that Tuesday’s review count will remain a high for the 2017 playoffs. Strip those lengthy stoppages (and a few highly questionable offensive foul calls) away and that same intensity ought to remain and be fully appreciated.

Enough review talk. Three things from Tuesday and a look ahead to Game 2:


Word of the night

Persistence. Sandy Brondello used the word to describe the effort of the Sparks in winning the opening game of the series. Candace Parker later used the same word to describe her teammate Alana Beard, the newly announced WNBA Defensive Player of the Year.

The Sparks went on a quick 6-0 run in the third to create some separation. They also tightened up defensively; Phoenix scored just six points in that quarter. “They just persisted. It’s what makes them a championship team.” Brondello said.

Chelsea Gray made a few plays toward the end of the third quarter, which really got the crowd at Staples Center going. While the Sparks may have needed to kick off some rust and tighten up coming out of halftime, the Mercury may have been feeling serious fatigue in the second half stemming from their quick turnaround from Sunday.

Parker cited a play from the first half to illustrate Beard’s persistence. “In the first half she got hit, knocked down; she was on the floor. She didn’t lay there, she got right back up and went and found [Diana Taurasi].” Parker said. “Even if Dee makes a play, she’s gonna be just as persistent the next time.”

Taurasi shot 2-for-10 in the series opener. Both sides credited the team defensive effort of the Sparks. Taurasi runs off screens away from the ball and handles in the pick and roll; the Sparks were able to send help Beard’s way on Tuesday night to give her time to get back into those plays.

Agler’s impact on LA’s defense

Just prior to the start of the semis, the Sparks re-signed Brian Agler to a multi-year extension. Fresh off a title and now looking to repeat, Nneka Ogwumike recognized Agler’s impact on the defensive end of the floor.

“He’s created a culture that makes defense something very personal. And we’ve assumed that. There are things that we’re doing individually and collectively that we probably haven’t ever been introduced to, ever done before, ever accomplished. There’s a standard and you can’t do anything less than that.”

Culture is often tossed around as an empty buzzword. Ogwumike went on to really explain what it means for the Sparks. 

“What’s so great about the culture is that it’s not even about your responsibility and what you have to do. It becomes fun.” Ogwumike closed by saying, “Playing defense becomes fun when we do it the way we’re supposed to. So I would say that pretty much sums up how we approach each game.” 

Battle for points in the paint

The Sparks saw all five starters score 10 or more points Tuesday night. They have multiple players that can penetrate to score it themselves or make a play for somebody else. Chelsea Gray finished with 13 points and 6 assists; Odyssey Sims added 12 points and 5 dimes.

“You wanna keep them out of the paint, and then you look and they’ve got 40.” Brondello said afterwards. “They still just find a way to get seams, whether it’s guard penetration or post ups.”

Parker and Ogwumike combined for 34 points. Ogwumike, matched up with Brittney Griner for much of the night, finished 8-for-14 from the field.

Look ahead to Game 2

Agler referenced Jantel Lavender’s night, saying she got some good looks inside. Had a few more of Lavender’s looks went down, the Sparks may have jumped ahead even further. And perhaps that’s the worry for Phoenix: the Sparks scored 40 points in the paint and got another handful of looks that normally go down. Parker got in some early foul trouble, but one was an iffy block-charge call. The other was for an illegal screen.

If you’re Phoenix, you like that you hung around with just one day to travel and prep for the defending champs. The Mercury touched down in Los Angeles late Monday evening. That short window of time between round two and the semis is especially rough in this playoff format.

“I would imagine most games are gonna be like this. There’s gonna be possessions that you’re gonna have to play the entire shot clock.” Agler said. “This went just like I thought it would.”

The start to Thursday’s game will be interesting. The change in venue, the heap of reviews and foul calls still fresh in our minds. Phoenix navigated a tough road to get to this point.

Tough as it may be, zoom out and look past the choppiness to Tuesday’s Game 1. What do you see happening Thursday night? The Mercury are 40 minutes (OK, more like 150 minutes with all these reviews) away from an early split before heading home and finally getting some deserved extra time off.

The Sparks? They can grab a 2-0 lead, then look to close things out on the road. Regardless of Thursday’s outcome, I can already feel the anticipation building in Phoenix. Those fans will be fired up, eager to see this series go the distance. 

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