SEATTLE -- After barely squeaking into the playoffs, the Los Angeles Sparks have been charged with the formidable task of taking down the Seattle Storm, a powerhouse of a team that tied a WNBA record with 28 wins while rattling off a perfect 17-0 record at Key Arena.
"You come into this building and you know that these fans are going to give them the utmost amount of support," Sparks forward Delisha Milton-Jones said. "Even throughout this city, there's a buzz."
The Sparks have managed to overcome serious odds to get where they are now. Adjusting to the departure of head coach Michael Cooper would have been tough enough on its own, but the Sparks also lost their permanent fixture in the middle in Lisa Leslie to retirement, valuable rotation player Betty Lennox to a season-ending knee injury, and superstar Candace Parker to a season-ending shoulder injury.
The Sparks had every excuse in the book readily available for them to use, but instead they managed to fight their way back from a terrible start and reach the playoffs behind the play of their savvy veterans.
The league's lone remaining player to have competed in the inaugural season back in 1997, Tina Thompson, carried the Sparks down the stretch run. The WNBA's all-time leading scorer averaged nearly 20 points per game in the month of August, and dropped a 26-point, 9-rebound, 3-assist effort in a critical late-season win against Minnesota that clinched a playoff spot.
"It's been an adjustment," Thompson said of the changes to the roster. "Going into the second half we've had time to adjust and mature as a team. Now everyone knows their role and knows their identity and that's allowed us to be successful."
Veteran point guard Ticha Penicheiro used her steady hand at the point guard position to help guide the patchwork unit the Sparks were forced to play with much of the year while Milton-Jones picked up a good portion of the frontcourt scoring slack. Although they were fighting an uphill battle without their game changer in Parker, the veterans put the team on their backs in a big way toward the end of the season.
"Our veterans, Tina, DeLisha and I, we really stepped up and played well," Penicheiro said. "Our chemistry started flowing and we played better, got some wins, and made the playoffs. That was our goal. When the playoffs start, it's a new season. It's zero-zero."
If there's anything working in the favor of the Sparks going up against the Storm, it's experience. Los Angeles has historically owned Seattle in the playoffs, having eliminated the Storm in the conference semifinals three of the past four years. The Storm exacted some revenge by sweeping the Sparks in their five regular-season tilts this season, largely behind the play of MVP candidate Lauren Jackson.
After their dominant regular season, the Storm are the prohibitive favorite to win it all, but they'll first have to get by a battle-tested Sparks team that historically has their number and has shown it won't fall after the first punch.
"We're always confident no matter what the situation is," Milton-Jones said. "We've been playing some great basketball, but our best has yet to come."