By Brady Klopfer
There is a switch in basketball. Good teams have it; or maybe all teams have it, but good teams know how to flip it.
The Los Angeles Sparks have a switch. And through the first half of the season we’ve seen the team flip it on and off as casually as a dining room light. When the switch is flipped, Los Angeles is as good a team as exists; their offense flows effortlessly through their do-everything center, Candace Parker, with balletic force inside from fellow MVP Nneka Ogwumike. More importantly, their defense reacts quickly, with the perimeter trio of Alana Beard, Chelsea Gray and Essence Carson not only locking down opposing wings, but jetting into the paint to attack unsuspecting bigs with pressure from all angles.
When the Sparks flip the switch, good things generally happen. We’ve seen them play lackadaisical and lose big to teams such as the Dallas Wings and Las Vegas Aces. We’ve seen them flip the switch following those losses and remind the same teams that, oh yeah, Los Angeles is basketball hierarchy, and all paths must ultimately run through the Sparks.
On Tuesday night against the Connecticut Sun, the Sparks flipped the switch at halftime. After recording just 25 first-half points (while ceding 41), Los Angeles outscored Connecticut 26-13 in the third frame. The switch was flipped, as it so often is, on defense first, which led to a chain reaction on the other end of the court.
“When you get a stop, it’s great because you deflate your opponent,” Carson explained after the game. “It’s deflating when you’re not able to score, especially consecutively. You allow the momentum to swing in your direction, and that in itself allows your offense to flow smoother.”
That was on full display. Carson and Beard were attacking from help positioning like hawks on an open field, darting across the court to cause congestion and slap away the ball. In turn, the offense began to move fluidly, and Los Angeles took advantage of an off-balance Connecticut team to find high-quality looks from basic offensive sets.
When they do that, the buckets come easily. As Ogwumike explained, “We try to make things a little bit too difficult for ourselves, and overcomplicate things.” Indeed, in the first half Los Angeles looked like a freshman on their first day of college, who had accidently stumbled into a graduate physics lecture. In the second half, through a variety of basic movements – pinch posts, pin-downs, etc. – the Sparks looked at ease, and in control.
Ultimately, it wasn’t enough. The Sun had cooked up a 20-point lead in the first half, and while Los Angeles was able to briefly take the lead in the fourth quarter, the energy spent climbing out of the hole drained them towards the end. The Sparks flipped the switch, but they flipped it too late.
After the game, Parker was less inclined to talk about flipping the switch, and more interested in addressing the fact that the switch needed to be flipped in the first place. When asked what triggered the flip, Parker didn’t mince words: “It was energy and effort.” But as she said it, it was clear what she meant; this wasn’t to praise the Sparks’ second-half effort, but to scorn their first-half complacency.
For the Sparks, that’s what their year will come down to. They know they have the switch; but can they flip it when the season is on the line?