Pressure bust pipes for the Sparks

By Brady Klopfer

Pressure is the name of the game for the Sparks, at least on the defensive side of the court. While the Sparks don’t have the tall pillars of interior protection that define many defensive schemes, they have highly skilled players, who not only possess defensive talent, but strong instincts and cohesion.

Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Alana Beard looks like a frontrunner to repeat, though backcourt mate Chelsea Beard appears to have a foot in the race as well. Odyssey Sims, Essence Carson and Cappie Pondexter are, to use the parlance of their sport, dogs. And Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker, while undersized against many matchups, have a remarkable understanding of space, rotations and angles.

As a result, coach Brian Agler has the ability to dial up the pressure as he so chooses. When the Sparks need to buckle down defensively, the backcourt often starts picking up their opponent near halfcourt. Time and time again, Gray and Beard are seen bodying up opposing guards 40 feet from the hoop, reaching and sliding and making dribbling a hellacious activity for their helpless and hapless counterparts.

Most defensive schemes avoid this type of pressure, save for moments of true desperation. But since the Sparks’ perimeter defenders are so adept at staying in front of their opponents, the team can use this type of aggression. And, in turn, since the frontcourt MVP duo seems to always be in ideal position and lightning quick with their rotations and help defense, the backcourt can be aggressive bordering on risk-taking. It’s a symbiotic relationship: the perimeter defenders can be aggressive because of the interior defenders’ abilities, while the interior defenders are perpetually in better positions because of the level of trust they have for the perimeter defense.

Ogwumike explained this symbiosis, saying, “I’m not sure if it’s as much as [the guards] making life easy for us, as it is us also helping them, supporting them. Because it’s not easy to defend people at 40, 50 feet, and we have to be able to provide that support behind them, trust that they know that we have their backs. It’s a blessing to be able to have so many perimeter players that can do that type of defense.”

But the aggression isn’t just about providing increased pressure; it’s also about keeping opposing teams from getting advantageous positioning.

“It’s something we want to be consistent with,” Beard said when asked about pressure far from the hoop. “Individually, players have that mentality to get [the opposition] picked up earlier, whereas in previous games we’ve allowed guards to come down and dictate what they wanted to do. In order for our defense to be at a level that we want it to be, we have to pressure them.”

Ultimately, Beard believes the pressure helps throw teams out of rhythm. “Every team, they have a system, they have an offense that they want to run. If we can throw off the timing, a little bit … it’s going to allow our teammates to get into plays.”

With as much talent as the Sparks have, that little bit of timing disruption can be all that is needed to secure a victory. And it’s all made possible by putting five quality defenders on the court at one time.