Kristi Toliver brings a lot more than signature 3-pointer to Sparks

Kristi Toliver hit a career-high 81 3-pointers this season, and ranked fourth in the WNBA with a 42.4 3-point shooting percentage. Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES -- Sparks guard Kristi Toliver dreams a lot about basketball, which makes sense. She's the daughter of a referee. She's been a shooter "since forever." She's cerebral on the court. So, of course, the sport is there a lot even when she sleeps.

"She thinks the game very well; she's one of the most intelligent players I've been around," Los Angeles coach Brian Agler said. "If you think of people I'd compare her with, it's like Sue Bird, Katie Smith, Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker -- those guys really see the game and understand it.

"They see things before they happen and can analyze it from a team perspective and talk about what we need to get better. Kristi sees the game like that."

Toliver, 29, has long been viewed as a shooting guard who plays the point out of necessity, but that's not a fair way to describe it. With eight years' experience as a professional, Toliver has been pretty great at being a combo guard and all that entails.

This year has illustrated that. During the regular season, Toliver had 122 assists -- the second-highest total of her career -- and 45 turnovers. Her turnover average of 1.3 was the lowest of her career. Efficiency was the key word for the Sparks' offense, and Toliver played a huge role while averaging a team-high 32.1 minutes per game.

She also shot the 3 better than ever: Toliver made a career-high 81 from long range. And her 42.4 percent from behind the arc was fourth-best in the WNBA and the fourth season in which she's shot better than 42 percent from behind the arc.

As the Sparks enter Game 3 of the WNBA Finals on Friday (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET), a lot as always will be riding on Toliver's shoulders. The Sparks will look to her to initiate offense and score herself. After Los Angeles was so thoroughly beaten on the boards in Tuesday's Game 2 loss at Minnesota, the Sparks' guards will need to do more to help with rebounding, too.

And everyone will be waiting for Toliver to hit 3-pointers. In her career, she's made 416 treys in the WNBA regular season, and 33 in the playoffs. Eighteen of those have come in six postseason games this year.

"I know that's what people expect me to do," she said. "But I also use the fact that I am a shooter to my advantage as a decoy. You can use that whether you've got the ball or not."

The long ball is her signature, and always has been. But we know -- we've seen for some time now -- that there is a lot more to Toliver's game.

"She can pretty much do everything," Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen said. "She can drive, she can put it on the bounce and shoot. And if she gets hot from outside, look out. She's a tough player who has really improved her game every year. So you just do what you can to stay on her. She makes it hard, though; she's one of the reasons they've had such a great season."

Toliver started her career with Chicago, which drafted her at No. 3 in 2009, but she and then-coach Steven Key didn't necessarily see eye-to-eye. In 2010, the Sky traded her for a 2011 second-round pick (Angie Bjorklund, who played in just seven WNBA games). Key was gone after the 2010 season himself, but by then the damage had been done by giving Toliver away for nothing.

Los Angeles has reaped the benefits. Parker, the Sparks' No. 1 pick in 2008, remembers when the team told her there was a chance to get Toliver.

"I got excited because she's one of the best shooters in the WNBA," said Parker, the only current Sparks player who's been with Los Angeles longer than Toliver. "She's a combo guard, but she's learned to play the point-guard position: run the offense and figure out when it's her time. She's mastered that and has a good balance of getting other people involved."

If you ask an expert "true" point guard about the different mentality between the guard positions, you have a greater appreciation for how well Toliver has done dual duty.

"When I'm the point guard and I'm dribbling down the court, I'm calling a play, and trying to get my teammates in place," Seattle's Sue Bird said. "You're looking to set things up. When I do play shooting guard, though, immediately in my head, the first thing when I touch the ball is, 'I get to try to score.'

"So I think when you are naturally a shooting guard, and you get put at the point spot, it's a little uncomfortable. When you're trying to find that natural balance, it's hard for some players."

Over the years, someone who is as natural a shooter as Toliver has struggled at times with the balance. But she's spent many years to refine all the skills she needs for both jobs.

"Kristi, when she can put the ball on the floor and create a little distance to get her shots off, she's probably at her greatest strength," Agler said. "But she has really worked to evolve her game so she could be an effective point guard; her assist-to-turnover ratio this year was really good."

Toliver said after this long in the league, she is relishing a chance to play in the WNBA Finals for the first time and is suitably dialed in. She's averaged 14.3 points in this postseason, including 19 in the Sparks' Game 1 victory over Minnesota.

"I don't think I've ever been so focused," Toliver said of the 2016 playoffs. "I know that everyone is just willing to do anything. Watching the extra film, doing your homework. Knowing it's going to take everything we have."

And basketball does seep into her subconscious. Toliver said she does plenty of shooting in dreamland. The most famous 3-pointer of her career, which tied Duke late in the 2006 national championship game and paved the way for Maryland's overtime victory, sometimes even replays in her mind.

Does she ever miss in her dreams? Toliver gives you a "perish-the-thought" look and smiles.

"Oh, no," she said. "It always goes in."