Notes, quotes and observations from a 72-64 win for the Los Angeles Sparks at home over the Atlanta Dream:
Tuesday night was the third game in five days for the Dream on the road. No rest for the weary, though: five of their next seven will be away from home as well. Atlanta did manage to make a late push with a bench-heavy unit out there against one of the top teams in the league. Blake Dietrick played significant minutes (13, all in the second half) for the first time with this team, largely due to foul trouble for Tiffany Hayes.
“I knew if Blake Dietrick played significant minutes she would get at least one runout layup because she runs the court so hard on every possession,” Dream head coach Nicki Collen told High Post Hoops postgame.
Dietrick did get a runout — off a Sparks made basket, no less. (That isn’t the only prediction Collen nailed on Tuesday. More on that later.) She also got two looks at wide open three-pointers with her team down six near with about four minutes to play. The shots didn’t fall that time, but that sequence is worth remembering. The Dream, battling fatigue and foul trouble, were one shot away from making it a one possession game in crunch time.
Imani McGee-Stafford and rookie Monique Billings played the majority of the second half together up front, working hard on the offensive glass and on the defensive end to limit LA’s easy chances around the rim.
“I just felt like we weren’t active enough on the offensive glass. We weren’t shooting the ball particularly well, and we weren’t getting extra possessions,” Collen said. “I just challenged [McGee-Stafford] to go in there and rebound, and she did. She grabbed four offensive rebounds and I thought she was active.
“I thought she screened well, and I really felt like, kind of the message that I’ve been trying to send to her in terms of simplifying her game and understanding where she can be successful, and I thought she did that.”
Billings, who played collegiately at UCLA, added two offensive rebounds and a steal in 11 minutes. Her excitement for the opportunity to play at Staples Center for the first time in a WNBA uniform was about more than her college roots, though.
“Sitting on the bench, you just kind of see what’s lacking and what you need to bring,” Billings said. “Definitely rebounding, energy and just hustle — just passion. So I think that the bench group brought that and we contributed.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to play in the WNBA. I used to come here to the Sparks games, watching Candace Parker and a lot of these players who are still out here. It’s been a dream to me and I’m blessed with the opportunity. And I know that there’s young girls looking at me now, so I just have to keep going in the right direction and make a positive example out of myself for them.”
Having watched so much of Billings and her UCLA team, especially this past season, I wondered how much she was looking to starting power forward Jessica Breland as a model of what she could become at this level. Both are long, lean, athletic, have a nice shooting touch from the midrange, and have the tools to be extremely versatile defenders.
Breland appeared to get back on track offensively with that midrange jumper in this game. Collen said pregame that she felt her starting power forward simply needed “that one game where she makes five jump shots, and then she’s gonna be Jess Breland — then she’s gonna be a double-double.”
She knocked down five of them in the first half alone, and finished 7-13 from the field.
14 points was a season-high for the seven-year pro. Including Tuesday’s shooting performance, Breland is still shooting just 31.6 percent from the field after shooting 46 percent or better each of her past four seasons in Chicago as a member of the Sky.
Billings’ face immediately lit up with a smile when asked about what she’s learned from Breland thus far and whether or not she intends to model her game after her.
“[Breland] is awesome on and off the court. I really, like with binoculars, watch everything that she does and just try to model my game after her because we’re similar players,” Billings said. “And just the fact that she has a really good positive attitude makes me really encouraged and want follow her even more. I’m really thankful that she’s kind of been like a mentor and a big sister for me out there.”
Candace Parker scored a game-high 18 points on 7-11 shooting and connected on both of her three-point attempts. Essence Carson was also hitting from range (3-5 3PT). Her triple early in the fourth put the Sparks up by 12. Later in the period she assisted on a Nneka Ogwumike triple and Alana Beard jumper. Those shots and a late Odyssey Sims floater took the wind out of Atlanta’s sails.
“That’s what makes them so good in this league,” Dream guard Layshia Clarendon said postgame acknowledging the deflating feeling of seeing those open shots go in, knowing a defense can only take so many things away. “Essence is playing super confident. They did a good job tonight of just knocking down those open shots.”
Carson’s shooting could really open a lot of doors for LA’s offense. They aren’t stocked with quick-release, high volume gunners. But they generate quality open looks with their penetration, cutters and post presence. Carson, now in her third season with the Sparks, is on pace to get up her most three-point attempts since the 2012 season with New York, where she shot 34.3 percent on 105 attempts.
Nneka Ogwumike offered up her assessment of Carson’s apparent comfort level on the offensive end thus far in 2018: “Her finding her flow in the offense. She’s doing a really good job of keeping the offense open. She knocks down her shot and she’s able to move when she’s at the four. She cuts a lot and that really helps.”
The Sparks will have to go through a few tough road stretches down the line. They took care of business at home by winning four of five, though the Storm did make a statement last Thursday by dominating the first and third quarters en route to a blowout. Anyone following the Sparks closely of late knows LA will continue to focus on its day-to-day grind rather than getting caught up in the big picture.
“We have to continue to get better,” Alana Beard said when asked for her takeaways from the homestand. “Our defense was a little better tonight. In terms of our rotations, reading off of each other, being proactive in our movements. And then offensively, just finding a better rhythm. We have spurts where we play really good basketball offensively. We’ve gotta figure out how to withstand those spurts.”
The Sparks withstood enough Tuesday to come out on top. One thing is for certain, though, now that we are more than a quarter of the way through the season for some teams: Nobody is looking up at the Sparks or the Minnesota Lynx. Teams are chomping at the bit to knock them off.
The Dream shot just 38 percent from the field. With Hayes logging just 26 minutes due to foul trouble and Angel McCoughtry shooting 3-14 from the field, Atlanta still managed to bring the fight to LA on their home floor.
“We’re still learning Nicki,” Clarendon said. “A lot of new offensive stuff, but nothing crazy that we haven’t run in this league. So just an adjustment when you’re learning a new system and a new coach and all different lineups throughout the year.
“But our bench did a really good job coming in and people who hadn’t played — we needed those fresh legs and that fresh energy, and it showed in the second half.”
The Dream have defended very well early in the season, especially considering some of their shooting struggles. Given their level of talent, one would think it’s only a matter of time before they really begin to figure some things out.