SEATTLE -- All season the Los Angeles Sparks have been woefully undersized. The retirement of Lisa Leslie and an early season-ending shoulder injury to Candace Parker left the Sparks vertically challenged up front, and the Seattle Storm capitalized on their advantage early and often in a 79-66 win in the opening game of the Western Conference semifinals.
"Our game plan was switching so a lot of times [Storm center Lauren Jackson] was being covered by a lot of our smaller players," Tina Thompson said. "They definitely took advantage of that."
After Seattle scored at will in the paint against the switching man-to-man scheme by the Sparks to start the game, Los Angeles coach Jennifer Gillom tried to compensate for her team's lack of size with a variety of defensive looks, including a zone defense that temporarily slowed Seattle's potent inside game.
"That's part of their success here of late," Seattle coach Brian Agler said. "It's their ability to change their defenses."
While the tactic worked initially, Seattle flaunted its depth by reaching to its bench to counter the heavily collapsing zone. Rarely used reserve Jana Vesela played the role of a "stretch-four" by connecting on three second-quarter 3s while still not yielding anything to Thompson at the other end.
"To have her come out tonight and hit 3s from the outside and get her hands on a couple of balls with deflections, that's what we're going to need in this playoff series," said Swin Cash, who led Seattle with 20 points. "She just gives us a different look on the offensive end."
When the Sparks temporarily solved the puzzle of stopping MVP candidate Jackson by swarming her on the catch while still managing to close out on shooters, their ability to create offense disappeared. Finding space to operate proved to be a difficult exercise all evening, as Seattle cut off all passing lanes and used its tremendous length to get its hands on passes and disrupt the Sparks' offensive flow. The Sparks usually distribute the ball well as a team, but a lack of movement and some tough defense resulted in only eight assists to 13 turnovers for Los Angeles.
"We had to limit our turnovers," Gillom said. "They seem to take advantage when we make turnovers, they seem to capitalize on it in transition. I thought in the first half we had way too many turnovers, and we just didn't take care of the ball."
As if life wasn't hard enough for the Sparks, veteran point guard and WNBA all-time assists leader Ticha Penicheiro suffered a knee injury early in the third quarter that sidelined her for an extended period of time. True to form, though, the Sparks continued to battle, both literally and figuratively.
Midway through the third quarter, a bit of a scuffle ensued after Jackson issued a hard foul on Sparks forward DeLisha Milton-Jones.
"It's the playoffs," Thompson said plainly on the physical play. "It's to be expected."
The ensuing technical on Jackson led the Seattle crowd into the most furious "Beat L.A." chant heard this side of Boston in quite some time. With the crowd re-awakened and Milton-Jones missing both free throws, Jackson immediately answered at the other end with an emphatic and-one that nearly tore the roof off KeyArena.
One of the lone bright spots on the evening for Los Angeles was the play of Kristi Toliver, who looked more like one of the veterans rather than a second-year pro. On a night when Thompson and Milton-Jones were hounded inside, Toliver took some of the pressure off by being aggressive with penetration to the rim. With her forays to the hoop and sharpshooting from the outside, Toliver kept the Sparks in striking distance throughout the game with timely buckets and heady play.
"I've been trying to emphasize to Kristi the entire season -- you're definitely a factor on this team," Gillom said. "When you're scoring, we're a better team. When we have our inside game and our outside game going, it will be a much better game."
Although the Sparks threatened with Toliver keeping the score close, Seattle's methodical offense routinely produced good looks down the stretch to keep the lead safe. A late 8-0 run by Seattle that included a banked-in 3-pointer proved to be too much for the Sparks to overcome.
"We can't just wait until the fourth quarter," Gillom said. "Against a team that's as good as Seattle, we have to come out of the starting blocks ready to play. We have to be able to execute on both ends for 40 minutes, not 30. If we can come out with a great start, then that'll give us momentum into the rest of the game. If we could just cancel this first quarter tonight, who knows what would've happened."
While the Sparks can't hit the reset button, they'll get another crack at the Storm on Saturday at Staples Center, but this time around, they'll be facing more than just injuries and adversity -- they'll be facing elimination.