Sparks, Storm well-prepared for second-round match up

Alysha Clark guards Candace Parker. Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld
Alysha Clark guards Candace Parker. Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld

Los Angeles – Much has happened in the ten days that have elapsed between the Los Angeles Sparks’ last meeting with the Seattle Storm. But each team enters tomorrow’s second-round single-elimination playoff game with just what they needed to prepare.

The third-seeded Sparks got significant practice time this week, while the Storm got a big win over Minnesota in playoff round one on Wednesday. Players and coaches from both squads say they are ready to compete now in what they called a new season.

“It’s a clean slate for everybody,” Los Angeles guard Sydney Wiese said. “There’s a different level of intensity, especially in a one-and-done situation. You have to pull out all the stops.”

The Sparks played a game every 2-3 days since the All-Star break, with only one four-day interval, on a schedule that included two road trips. They won their last three games and secured the No. 3 spot with their 102-68 rout of Seattle earlier this month, which gave them a first-round playoffs bye and a full week off between games. Wiese said she and her teammates used that opportunity to run through some tough practices.

“We competed against each other,” she said. “We went hard up and down and made sure we went through live game reps. It doesn’t feel like we’ve had a week off between games; we’ve been getting up and down (the floor) and we’ve been physical and competitive. We want to make sure at tipoff tomorrow that we know what that feels like.”

The sixth-seeded Storm have had two starters out all season, have seen just about every player on the roster injured, and they struggled with inconsistency in their final stretch of regular-season games. A convincing win over former powerhouses Minnesota gave them a boost.

“For us it was important to be able to get into a flow for the playoffs…which we were able to continue in the game against Minnesota,” veteran forward Alysha Clark said. “Hopefully that’ll be good for us here, because I don’t think we’ve played well the last two times we’ve been here. So we’re in a good place now, feeling good about how we’re playing.”

Seattle coach Dan Hughes said their win leveled the playing field with Los Angeles.

“I see it a little bit as an equalizer,” Hughes said. “Whenever you’re in the playoffs – especially in single-elimination – your confidence moves with you. I’d just say it equalized it a bit because the team is coming off a win.”

“We got up and were watching film the next morning, just moving it along a little bit. You get a little adrenaline going. You get a win and advance, I mean, you play for this time.”

Sparks coach Derek Fisher said that though his roster is playoffs-experienced, they are focusing only on the next game.

“In some ways we do have to disconnect from the 34-game regular season and really just view this as one game vs the Seattle Storm,” Fisher said. “We can’t carry too much emphasis on what the score was the last time we played them, who played or who didn’t play. We just have to figure out how to win tomorrow.”

For Los Angeles, that means avoiding long game stretches where the team lacks energy – an issue that has arisen throughout the season. Wiese said players discussed that this week.

“There’s no time (for energy lapses) now,” she said. “Every single possession is important; there are no time for lapses, there’s no time for a comeback. You don’t even want to be in that position. So at tipoff our view is our backs are against the wall, and (the two teams are) zero-zero.”

Fisher said the key to a win is maintaining high-energy play.

“There isn’t any amount of practice you can put in to prepare to play against the best players in the world in a game situation,” he said. “The things I try and watch for when I feel like we may not have our game conditioning at its fullest level is to try and get a couple bodies out quickly and get a couple players in and (give the benched players) their second wind.”

Clark said the Storm isn’t necessarily thinking about their opponents.

“That’s our mindset is having confidence in ourselves,” she said. “We can’t control what they do or how they prepare; we can only focus on us. Today we’re focusing in on what we can do to be better and to play better.”

Hughes, who began cancer treatment in May after Seattle opened training camp and returned to the bench in June, said his team met his expectations – throughout all of the injuries.

“I thought we were capable as I got to know the team,” he said. “When I had to have cancer surgery, I asked (owners) if I could have a week with the team before I had surgery. I wanted to feel the pulse. And we’d lost (forward Breanna Stewart) then but we hadn’t lost (point guard Sue Bird) yet, but you could see they had a culture about them that I thought this was possible.”

‘You have to look at the individuals as a team, and they have to have a toughness and a resiliency. They’re the ones who have to go through the ups and downs of those events, and that’s what they’ve been – very resilient.”

The game tips off at noon tomorrow on ESPN2. The winner goes on to play No. 2 Connecticut Tuesday.