Contemplations on the Sparks’ first-round loss to Phoenix

Here’s what I saw last night as the Sparks lost in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs to the Mercury:

– Both teams were mediocre to start. In the third quarter, when Mercury forward Diana Taurasi ignited her team and helped boost the lead, the Sparks had no answer.

– Candace Parker and Lindsey Harding came to play. Everyone else pretty much disappeared. Normally high-scoring Kristi Toliver’s poor game was especially devastating for the Sparks.

– With over a minute to go and LA behind by only six, they had one more chance to make a run. Instead, Phoenix scored. Parker caught the ball as it came through the net, turned around with her back to the court and slammed the ball down in frustration.

– Brittney Griner was in foul trouble in the second quarter, yet the Sparks didn’t capitalize on that in the second half, and she never fouled out.

– The Mercury’s defense is very good now.

A friend of mine, who lives in the Southern United States, was twitter-messaging me during the game. I like to talk with her because she’s been a women’s basketball fan for decades, like myself, and has followed the WNBA since its inception. She is a huge Sparks fan. After last night’s game she said she was starting to feel like she shouldn’t get her hopes up for them every year anymore, because each season expectations are high and the talent is there. Yet in the end, LA isn’t there mentally. I asked her to write out her specific frustrations about last night’s game, and this is what she sent me:

It was a disappointing game for the Los Angeles Sparks. I take my hat off to the Mercury, because they played like underdogs are supposed to – intense, and focused. The Sparks, on the other hand, didn’t play like they were aiming for a championship, which is what they’ve publicly stated as their goal for many years.

On ESPN’s broadcast, Rebecca Lobo said the Sparks had an intense, physical practice the day before this game. I didn’t understand why she’d do that. I had been wondering why Kristi Toliver wasn’t playing well, and Lobo said on the broadcast that Toliver was nursing an injury from that practice. Yet, I wouldn’t excuse Toliver from playing, as I’ve seen athletes play their way through tougher injuries.

Candace Parker and Lindsey Harding came to play, but I was disappointed in CP3’s defensive effort on certain plays. Three’s weren’t falling for anyone on the team, which led to Parker having little room to operate in the second half. I don’t feel coach Carol Ross made the adjustments she needed to make at the half.

The Sparks, to me, are the best team in the league, but they sometimes lack effort. They force plays, and make the game harder than it has to be. I get mad because I know what this team is capable of, which is far greater than their record. If the Mercury had played the Lynx this round, I guarantee these plays the Mercury made last night wouldn’t have been as easy as they were against LA.

The Sparks need to show up next game, or they will find themselves going home early. It won’t be because of the great play of Phoenix, but because of their mistakes and lack of effort. I have faith in the Sparks, and I believe they will win in Phoenix, but I need for everybody to show up. If the Sparks play physically, they’ll show why they were projected to win the championship.

I can see where she’s coming from. I still stick by much of my previous analysis of the Sparks earlier this season – especially in that they still seem to lack motivation and/or effort to win at times. They claim they want a championship, but the hunger isn’t visible, with the exception of Parker. (She stated in her MVP acceptance ceremony, prior to the game, that a title would mean more to her than that award).

One criticism of coach Ross that I heard not only from my friend, but other game watchers, was that last night she didn’t make effective adjustments to the Mercury’s surging play. Perhaps this is because she didn’t seem to display the understanding of the opponent that Mercury coach Russ Pennell did four days before. I asked both coaches how their teams matched up against the other, and Pennell had a very detailed answer. Ross’ was general.

I’ve also heard fans wonder all season long at Ross’ substitution patterns. Simply put: people don’t understand why or how she combines the players that she does on the floor. For example, at one point in the second half last night, it was Parker and four bench players.

The thing that concerns me most is that both Sparks players and Ross have acknowledged that the team mentally checks out of games at times. Yet no one knows why, nor what to do about it.

You can’t coach desire. I’ve coached myself, and I’ve always said that I’d take a hard-working player with less talent over a gifted athlete any day of the week. The work horses want it badly. They’re already motivated.

The Sparks are like the gifted athlete right now. With the exception of two throw-away players (Jenna O’Hea and Farhiya Abdi), they are solid at every position, with apt reserves. The excuses they’ve had in past years of lacking this or that position aren’t valid now. When they’ve been on this season, it’s a majestic sight. They could win a title playing the way they’ve played most of their games at home.

The only thing that seems to still be missing in LA’s make up is a collective drive/hunger/desire to win a title. Parker – seemingly the one Spark with that motivation – can’t do it by herself.

Tomorrow’s game two against the Mercury, in Phoenix, will be a defining moment for the Sparks. Will they gut check themselves and make an honest effort toward a title run? Or will they sink back into the mode of playing so far below their capabilities that they are unrecognizable?

We will see.