Dramatic Performance Highlights Sparks Exit From WNBA PlayoffsOctober 8, 2012
LOS ANGELES, Calif. – “Why?,” the player can clearly be heard asking a teammate on national television as she steps back from the huddle.
Fortunately, what came next required a little lip-reading skill. Very little. “I want the [expletive] ball,” the player said.
The player, of course, was Los Angeles Sparks superstar forward Candace Parker. She was reacting to a play outlined by her coach Carol Ross for what would prove to be the last six seconds of her 2012 WNBA season.
Parker would not get the ball, however, and a well-defended last-second shot by guard Alana Beard would miss, leaving the Sparks one-point short, in an 80-79 loss to the defending WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx.
In almost any scenario, Beard would be an unlikely candidate for attempting a season-saving last-second shot on a team boasting both Parker and break-out scoring machine Kristi Toliver.
But coming at the end of a game and playoff performance by Parker that amounted to a statement supporting the argument that she just might be the best player to ever put on a WNBA uniform, the reality that she would end the season without getting her hands on the ball created an outpouring of emotion that ranged all the way from a long and tearful moment in her mother’s arms at courtside, to an equally long Twitter tirade by her husband, NBA player Shelden Williams.
As disappointing as the ending was, however, it could not erase the transformation of the Los Angeles Sparks franchise in 2012 at the hands of the woman who called that last play, the 2012 WNBA Coach of the Year, Carol Ross.
“We all want to make it [about] one play or one moment,” Coach Ross said after the game. “But it’s an accumulation of 40 minutes of moments, some went our way, some didn’t.”
With Ross at the Sparks’ helm in 2012, a lot of moments went LA’s way. The team lost only one game at home in the regular season, and the 16-1 record at Staples Center was manna from heaven to Sparks fans and an ownership group that has endured a string of disappointing seasons despite putting some of the best talent in the WNBA on the floor night in and night out.
And the end certainly couldn’t mar Parker’s year. Her four magnificent playoff performances came on the heels of her stand out play in the gold medal game at the London Olympics and it all culminated in a nationally televised game on ABC where she demonstrated once and for all that yes, not only is she maybe the most supremely talented athlete in women’s sports, but she’s also one of the sports world’s most fierce competitors, an athlete who steps up her effort and results when the stakes are at their highest.
Parker’s individual stat sheet spoke of a heroic effort in a losing cause. 33 points. 15 rebounds including six offensive rebounds. Five assists and four blocked shots.
She was the only player on either team to play all 40 minutes of the contest.
“There’s no moral victories in losses,” Parker would say in the post-game presser. The twice NCAA national champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist spoke haltingly.
“From the day we all got together… we had a championship on our mind and a championship in our hearts.”
“Her [Parker’s] expectations for herself are much higher than any coach could have for her,” Ross said. “She has a warrior’s mindset. I’m disappointed for her, that I couldn’t help her, and help the rest of this team, get what they wanted.”
The truth is, however, that winning the Western Conference finals in 2012 was going to be a tall order due to the quality and nature of the opponent the Sparks would need to overcome in order to make it to the WNBA finals.
The defending champion Minnesota Lynx, the top seed in the west and maybe the most complete and well-coached team in WNBA history, had loomed over the Sparks successes in the western conference all season long.
Despite earning a season split with the Lynx it would be hard to imagine that anyone associated with the Los Angeles franchise didn’t lose at least some sleep thinking about the challenge of getting past Minnesota in the playoffs.
Lindsey Whalen, Maya Moore, and Seimone Augustus form simply the best set of starting wing players ever seen in the WNBA. They’re bigger and stronger – each of them nearly unstoppable offensively and equally as tough defensively – than anyone else in the women’s game.
Down in the paint, Yolanda Griffith protégé Rebekkah Brunson brings every bit of her one-time mentor’s junkyard dog tenacity and nose for the basketball. Opponents have a better chance at winning the lotto than they do of simply executing a box out on the incredibly strong six-two forward.
Taj McWilliams-Franklin rounds out a starting lineup on a team that depends on her calm seen-it-all-many-times-before leadership.
And in a sport where sometimes a teams’ bench contribution can become legend, the Lynx bench has done a pretty good job the last two seasons of nominating itself, at least in this league, into the discussion of historically great WNBA benches.
But with all that greatness, the Lynx almost didn’t make it into the Western Conference Finals.
Minnesota lost the second game of a three-game series to the fourth-seeded Seattle Storm and narrowly escaped elimination entirely when the Storm’s Lauren Jackson missed a six-foot jumper that, had it dropped, would have given Seattle one of the most stunning series upsets ever seen in the WNBA.
The Lynx were pushed, battered, and appeared to be literally exhausted after their series with the Storm.
But they needed to quickly regroup and turn their attention towards a likely even more formidable playoff opponent, the LA Sparks, whom they would meet just two days after their game-three nail biter with Seattle.
It was not a challenge many expected to be overcome as easily as the Lynx were able to overcome Los Angeles in game one last Thursday night, or, ultimately, in the series.
Much of the pre-game buzz held that however unexpected it may have been, Minnesota had been sufficiently softened up by the Storm as to make them vulnerable to the well-rested Sparks.
“I have to give credit to [Lynx assistant coaches] Shelley Patterson and Jim Petersen, who I put tremendous pressure on to prepare our team,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said, in speaking of her team’s quick turnaround from the series with Seattle. “These guys share the scouting responsibilities and they were all in,” Reeve continued.
“We knew everything about every player, every team – as far as their plays – and I think that [Petersen and Patterson’s] ability to impart to our players exactly and precisely what needed to be done – no gray areas – and for our players to actually absorb the information and apply it [was key].”
“But I think it started with those guys,” she continued. “That we could turn around, leave a series after a double overtime and a game three… and not be able to practice the next day the way we like to practice and then turn around and go play LA who had been sitting there waiting for their opponent… game one was, for me, just really impressive against LA.”
For Los Angeles, the future may not be now, meaning 2012, as a slogan on their promotional flyers boasts. But with a first-rate coach finally in place who is even now thinking ahead of the team she is in the process of building according to a long plan that sticks closely to the defensive focus she will continue to bring to the Sparks, that future should be one that pleases the LA faithful.
“My job, as I reflect back and look forward,” said Ross, “Is to figure out what’s the best way to continue to get great offensive players to really [buy in] on the defensive end. And that’s a process.”
“They [her players] didn’t get drafted because people said, ‘Boy, she sure can guard somebody.’ They all got drafted and they all made it to this point because they have such tremendous offensive skills.”
“But to be a champion,” Ross added, “We have to amp up our defense.”