Staples Center - What a difference a few weeks can make. Two weeks ago the Los Angeles Sparks were a team preparing itself for an early season end. The teams motto so proudly displayed on the media guide unfinished business was fading and it looked like the Sparks would miss the playoffs for the first time since 1998.
It seemed that the unfinished business would have to wait until next season and it was obvious that the team was beginning to resign itself to the inevitable.
That was two weeks ago, today the Sparks are in a tie with Phoenix for the last playoff berth in the Western Conference. Remarkable comeback? yes somewhat!
Actually the teams resurgence can be credited to their return to the principles of fundamental defense. Since Joe Jelly Bean Bryant took over as head coach on August 19, the Sparks have shown reoccurring flashes of the kind of defense that won back to back championships in 2001 and 2002. They have won 4 of their last 5 games, losing only to Sacramento on Bryants inaugural effort after being asked to takeover with less than a half-hours notice.
Bryants philosophy is simple; go out and have fun and let the veteran leadership take us where they need to go. That simple philosophy is exactly the prescription the ailing Sparks needed and one of the primary reasons why the Sparks could reclaim the crown if they can get into the playoffs.
The Sparks are the only team in the league with three veteran players who have played together since the leagues inception.
Lisa Leslie, Mwade Mabikwa and Temeka Dixon have played more than 200 hundred games since first starting together back in 1997. All three are or have been all-stars throughout their careers, add the fact that they have done it before and all are reasonably healthy at this point in the season bodes well for their chances to make the playoffs.
Add Nikki Teasley to the mix and now you have one of the leagues best point guards running the show with two championship finals under her belt. Teasley is the prototype for the point guard position, at 60 her silky smooth ball handling skills allow her to run the offense like a well oiled machine. Although sidelined with a nagging injury now, Teasley is expected to be ready for the playoffs.
Allstar forward Chimique Holdsclaw came to LA in a trade for DeLisha Milton and proceeded to lead the team in scoring, minutes played and is pacing Lisa in rebounds. Holdsclaw is an incredible player who is almost unstoppable when she gets it going. The team often struggled early in the season learning to play with her.
Holdsclaw is so good and her style of play is so unique even Leslie once admitted to have been mesmerized by her on the court. When the offense can spread the floor to allow her room to work, grab your socks and hold on...as she showed against the Lynx on Tuesday scoring 20 points, 7 assists and 8 boards.
FINAL PIECES OF THE PUZZLE
With four all-stars on the court, how much more can they bring? The other forward position is manned by Tameka Whitmore a 6 year veteran and Christi Thomas a second year player from Georgia. Bryant has continued to platoon these players, with the more experienced Whitmore as the starter.
These two players are the key to any success the Sparks hope to have. Whitmore and Thomas have to control the offensive and defensive glass to provide Lisa the kind of support she needs to get it going. The Sparks are currently ranked 10th in the league in offensive rebounding and 9th in defensive rebounding. Both players are extremely talented but both have a tendency to make punitive mistakes that usually leave Lisa in vulnerable defensive situations, usually leading to premature foul trouble.
Thomas the teams future at that position, must improve her reaction the ball along with the ability to quickly regain her defensive position and shutting off dribbling penetration on the baseline.
Whitmore on the other hand simply needs to accept the fact referees may not be the friendliest people in the world. They are going make calls the you may not completely agree with and the more you disagree the more they make.
Under Bryants tutelage, the Sparks are slowly getting back to running the offense through Lisa, when that happens, the weak offensive rebounding will be even more damaging.
In previous championship years, Delisha Milton handling all those dirty task, allowing Lisa to drive teams crazy.
Lisa is an offensive player, when shes got it going offensively she is an awesome force all over the court. Dont be fooled by her diminished scoring this season, that is directly attributable to the teams poor play at times rather than any decline in her game.
Theres no letup when you tap the reserves. Doneeka Hodges is a second year guard with a deadly outside shot. Hodges leads the league in 3-point field percentage at 46% and has played considerable minutes this season for the injured Nikki Teasley and done an outstanding job in that role.
At 61 Laura Macchi gives the Sparks another long forward with great outside range. Macchis strength is her ability to knock down the 3-pointers on demand. Rafalella Masciadri is another strong contributer off the bench this season. Rafalella is a 60 combo guard with 3-point range and a all-around sound game. She comes off the bench an provides whatever the offense needs at the time. She understands her role and usually stays well within those confines.
FORGET THE RECORDS
The Sparks have one the best balanced teams in the league. They have suffered some humbling losses this season that will only serve to fuel their playoff run. None was more humbling than the night of July 2, losing to the Mercury at home for first time since 1998. You can bet that those low moments wont be lost to the veteran leaders and they will use every said moment endured as motivational material once the playoffs start.
The switch to Joe Bryant was not a moment too soon. Allowing the team get back to enjoying the game was the right medicine and its healing powers are immediately evident. Whether there is enough time left to fix all of the ills is the only question left to be answered. If the answers come back positive, they will be hanging another banner in Staples Center this year.
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