No Parker, no problem for Sparks against Lynx
By Brady Klopfer
From a distance, it would be easy to think the Sparks were entering the 2018 WNBA season with a problem. Or at least, as much of a problem as a team coming off back-to-back Finals appearances, while retaining nearly all of their core players, can have.
Rebounding. That was the supposed problem.
After taking a 2-1 lead in last year’s Finals, the Sparks squandered consecutive games to the Lynx, ceding the title. In those final two games, the Lynx secured a whopping 37 more rebounds than the Sparks. No, that number is not a typo.
So rebounding was always going to be on Los Angeles’ agenda as the basketball calendar flipped, and a new season began. But it wasn’t going to be easy, as two of the team’s tallest trees - Jantel Lavender and rookie Maria Vadeeva - started the year overseas, and wouldn’t be with the team.
It seemed that a heavy load would rest on the shoulders of the team’s dynamic frontcourt duo of Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker. And then, as though to live out the analogy in painfully ironic fashion, the bad news came: Parker would miss the start of the season due to a back injury.
Suddenly Ogwumike, at a modest 6-foot-2, was the tallest player in purple and gold.
And with the altered roster, came an altered problem. Already facing a rebounding dilemma when healthy, there was no way that Los Angeles could control the boards with a downsized roster. Rebounding was no longer a question that needed answering, but instead a Rubik’s Cube that the team could solve in a variety of different ways.
Brian Agler’s squad had no choice but to go small, and because of it, they capitalized on the myriad benefits that a small roster has. Rather than let the game gravitate towards the paint, Los Angeles dictated where the battles took place: the perimeter.
Every Sparks player buckled in with lockdown intensity and Alana Beard, Chelsea Gray and Cappie Pondexter drove a defensive machine that set the tone in the backcourt. The three hounded Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen and the Lynx guards all game with a relentlessness generally befitting a less accomplished team.
Without Parker and Lavendar to hold serve at the rim, Los Angeles repeatedly pushed Minnesota further and further into the backcourt. The guards applied pressure early and often, forcing the ball out of the hands of the Lynx guards 25 feet from the hoop. Rather than using their centers as weapons in the pick and rolls that they’ve been known to run with aplomb, the Lynx were instead using their bigs merely as release valves for trapped guards.
By doing so, Los Angeles consistently put Minnesota in uncomfortable positions, with their bigs farther from the hoop than they are used to and their guards facing persistent pressure. The Lynx frontcourt of Rebekkah Brunson and Sylvia Fowles scored efficiently, but turned the ball over 10 times. On the whole, Los Angeles’ ball pressure and altered defensive scheme forced 24 turnovers out of the visibly frustrated defending champions.
The Sparks were still outrebounded handily, 41-25. But rather than try to minimize the damage from that weakness, they instead sought out an opportunity to create an advantage. And against Minnesota, that advantage was enough to secure a thrilling victory.