On the Seattle Storm’s blowout win over the Los Angeles Sparks at Staples Center, where the Sparks lost just once during last year’s regular season:
There were some clear themes to this game. This ESPN Thursday night showcase game was highlighted by a wonderful performance from Alysha Clark. She drew the primary assignment on All-WNBA point guard Chelsea Gray — already a dominant force off the dribble in 2017 that only seems to be getting even better.
“She’s a great point guard, a great guard in general,” Clark told High Post Hoops postgame. “My focus was really just to stay with her, stay in her space. She has great passing ability, she’s great off the bounce, she’s just a tough player to guard.
“I like to be challenged and this is kind of new for me defending point guards, in a sense. It was a fun challenge,” Clark added.
Opponents sticking their small forwards on Gray is quickly becoming a trend for Sparks opponents. Maya Moore drew the primary assignment in Gray in the most recent showdown between the Sparks and Lynx in LA. DeWanna Bonner of the Mercury has also matched up with Gray. Phoenix went so far as to switch pick and rolls involving Gray as the ball-handler to keep her from puncturing the defense off the dribble.
To borrow from some of her own words, Clark managed to stay in Gray’s space. The few times Seattle did breakdown, Natasha Howard was often there to clean it up. Clark put a nice bow on the win in the third quarter with two of her five steals and 12 points in the final three minutes of the period.
Seattle did not pay any attention to Alana Beard in this game. Sue Bird was very aggressive in sagging off of her to be sure the Sparks were seeing an extra body in the paint. Beard wisely found some good angles to cut to the basket. The Sparks turned it over a few times trying to find her, though, and Beard missed a few of those looks that she did get off.
Beyond the final margin, it’s important to note how well Seattle defended one of the most talented teams in the league. The Sparks did not get all the way into the paint on a drive until there were two minutes remaining in the half. Seattle forced LA’s guards toward the baseline on side pick and rolls and either Breanna Stewart or Howard helped keep them there.
On offense, the Storm were humming. They played with pace, the halfcourt included. The ball didn’t stick, bodies moved, and the open player ended up with the ball in their hands more often than not. The Sparks struggled to contain some of the same pick and rolls that Seattle defended so well on the other end.
After a Howard three-point play near the midway point of the first, Sparks head coach Brian Agler could be heard imploring Beard to “ice it,” meaning to send the ball-handler toward the baseline rather than to the middle with her teammate dropping back to help corral the drive. Jewell Loyd got going toward the middle instead and dropped it off to Howard rolling to the rim. Nneka Ogwumike slid across the lane attempting to take a charge, but the official ruled that one of her feet was in the restricted area.
That was Ogwumike’s second foul. She also exited the game in the second after picking up her third, which came on the heels of an 8-0 Sparks run.
Thursday’s game was about responses — the Storm dominated the first, the Sparks cut into the lead before halftime, and Seattle kept the pedal to the floor from the very first possession of the third to add to their lead once again.
“Out of the gate you could see LA fighting back a little bit,” head coach Dan Hughes said postgame. “But I thought our 3Q kind of established what we were doing. We’re doing a good job of just making it rough defensively.
“It was one of our better defensive games and gave us a chance to play out of our defense. We’ve been up and down defensively. The moments we can play out of our defense, we kind of go to another level.”
Keep an eye on Seattle’s all-bench unit of Jordin Canada at the point flanked by Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Sami Whitcomb on the wings with Courtney Paris and Mercedes Russell together up front. Crystal Langhorne (rib) would presumably join this group once she’s healthy. Noelle Quinn brings some spot-up shooting to the table and more size, length and versatility defensively on the wing.
They played the Sparks to a near-draw in their first half minutes, which you’ll take to the bank every single time. Squint and you can already see an identity forming. The group’s success largely rests on Canada’s ability to get them into their sets, then ultimately make plays off the dribble late in the clock. Whitcomb and Mosqueda-Lewis can knock down open threes, and the two bigs can look to set bruising screens for Canada then crash the offensive glass hard.
Paris agreed with and elaborated on the assessment of that group’s identity.
“We’ve got great shooters. Kaleena, Sami, and then Jordan Canada is such a special young player,” Paris said. “So it’s fun to get to grow with her. And that can be one of the things that can sets us apart from other teams, building up our bench and making sure we come out ready to play.”
Perhaps the strangest stat from that game: Jewell Loyd took just five shots. She knocked down a key three-pointer in the first quarter, and the Storm ran her off a screen for a free throw line jumper to start the second half off strong.
Loyd drew a tough assignment in Odyssey Sims for most of the night. Containing her dribble penetration was a key to the win and allowed Seattle to force the Sparks into so many tough contested jumpers late in the shot clock.
“We were really focused in on the defensive end. We really went over their plays before the game and made sure everyone understood the schemes,” Loyd said. “We knew if we rebound and push, that’s something that works in our favor. So we just try to stay in every play and get deflections, and just make them feel us from the start.”
There’s the same sentiment popping up again — making the Sparks feel them. Los Angeles is a team we’ve grown accustomed to seeing pull away from teams in the third quarter of regular season games with a similar formula. Stops came first, which then created more opportunities to string together scoring runs and push the ball in transition.
“People don’t wanna play us in transition. Once we get a steal, and even sometimes off a make, we run,” Loyd said. “Everyone can bring the ball up, everyone can pass it, everyone can shoot it.”