The Los Angeles Sparks' rocky season came to an end Saturday after an 81-66 loss to the Seattle Storm, but not for a lack of intensity or ingenuity.
Facing elimination, the Sparks came in with the mentality that they were going to throw the kitchen sink at the Storm. They scrambled all over the court, playing a style of defense that can best be described as "trapping and scrapping." They battled tooth and nail and gave a full 40 minutes of effort, but for the seventh straight time this season, the Storm had no issues solving the puzzle placed before them.
When the Sparks tried to take away Seattle's inside game, the Storm went outside and starting bombing away en route to a 12-for-22 performance from the perimeter. When the Sparks started hitting jumpers of their own, the Storm tightened and locked up on the wings. When the Sparks tried to speed up the game, the Storm slowed it right back down.
"I tell ya, it was hard to have an answer for this team," Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom said. "I thought that defensively we had the energy and the effort, but when you make big shots like they did tonight, there's not much you can do."
Tina Thompson, who led the Sparks with 18 points, talked about trying to slow down the Storm's brutally efficient offensive attack.
"From our standpoint we executed in ways that we wanted to," Thompson said. "But they definitely answered, and it came from unexpected places."
Those unexpected contributions helped pace the Storm, who experienced no drop-off in quality of play when they went to their bench. Even with the solid display of depth, it was the one of the Storm's more expected sources that found a way to counter the Sparks' aggressive defensive nature early.
"We did everything we could to make sure Lauren Jackson didn't get hers," Gillom said. "But then again, you got other posts in there posting up our guards. I thought we eliminated that a bit in this second game, but then Swin Cash decides she wants to go out to the 3-point line, my gosh."
It was Cash's perfect 4-for-4 shooting display from the perimeter in the second period that gave the Storm a lead they would never relinquish.
There are certain games where you can look back and critique the effort and the game plan, but at no point did it feel like one of those games. The Sparks tried everything, played smart and played hard, but at the end of the day they were simply overwhelmed by a superior Seattle team.
"We did everything we could to stop their big time players," Gillom said. "There was no advantage for us because we found no mismatches because of their size."
Outsized, outskilled and outmatched, there was only one "what if" scenario that applied to this series, and in a sense, the Sparks' entire season. What if they had the services of the injured Candace Parker?
"That's your inside presence, that's your shot-blocker, that's your go-to player," Gillom said. "Candace could have definitely taken us to the next level in this playoff. Without her, it was very difficult."
Even without Parker and former Finals MVP Betty Lennox, the Sparks didn't let the Storm get by them easily. Seattle had suffered five straight first-round exits in their recent playoff visits, with three of those coming at the hands of Los Angeles. When the Storm started to tighten up a bit offensively late in the fourth quarter, perhaps feeling the weight of that gorilla strapped to their back, the Sparks managed to mount a quick rally to pull back within striking distance. Seattle veterans Sue Bird and Jackson, who had experienced quite a few of those losses to Los Angeles in the past, quickly put an end to any hopes of a comeback by rattling off a run of their own.
"L.A., as long as I've been playing, they've been our No. 1 nemesis," said Jackson, who led Seattle with 24 points. "Really, it's a great rivalry. To me, it just means a lot. The legacy that L.A. has is amazing, and it doesn't matter who they've got over there, they're always going to be tough."
Although the Sparks didn't accomplish the original goal they had set out for themselves, they can hold their heads high when they think about their play this season.
"I'm really proud of my team overcoming the adversity this season," Gillom said."I thought they fought to the very end, they believed they could win to the very end, and as a coach there's nothing better than to see your team give you everything they have. That's probably the one thing that I really admire in my team the most."
As their season ended, point guard Ticha Penicheiro picked up a nearby microphone to address the home crowd at Staples Center. After apologizing for the loss, Penicheiro proclaimed, "We'll be back next year."
With a healthy Parker it's likely that she's right, and maybe at the next go-around between these two rivals the Sparks will be the ones that have all the answers.