Los Angeles, CA — Game 1 of the WNBA Semifinals included two teams who have each
gained the Championship title within the past three years, the Los Angeles Sparks and the
Phoenix Mercury. The Sparks are trying to defend their 2016 Championship title while the Mercury is trying to regain their spot in the finals as they lost to the Minnesota Lynx during last season’s Semifinals.
Los Angeles swept Phoenix in their three games during the regular season, so expectations ran high for them to tally another win. Even though the Mercury held their own and fought tooth and nail with the defending champs, once again the Sparks came out on top, 79-66.
Los Angeles was coming off an eight-day break – resting the first two rounds of the WNBA playoffs as the No. 2 seed -- and it showed in the first half with a sluggish start. Phoenix saw opportunities to take shots and followed through while the Sparks stood still.
“I think we were a little rusty obviously in the beginning,” stated the Sparks Candace Parker. “No excuse, you know, being off that many days obviously we prefer rest, but I think Nneka is right. Offensively, we weren’t very fluid, we weren’t moving the ball, we weren’t really pushing the ball in transition either. We only had four fast break points and that’s kind of unlike us.”
Two big reasons for an early lead by Phoenix came at the hands of Brittney Griner and Leilani Mitchell, who lead the team with 14 points combined in the opening frame. The two played a perfect tandem of an inside-outside scoring pattern to gain the advantage overLos Angeles, 23-19, going into the second stanza.
Early into the next period, it seemed as if Phoenix was going to extend its lead even further, however, the offense started clicking for Los Angeles keeping the lead from getting out of hand. Jantel Lavender went in for a putback layup, followed by Nneka Ogwumike doing the exact same motion to give the Sparks momentum.
Slowly but surely, Los Angeles completely erased its small deficit and headed into the locker room tied with Phoenix, 42-42.
The Sparks Head Coach Brian Agler, who fortunately signed a contract extension on Monday, must have said quite the words of encouragement during half time because Los Angeles was almost unrecognizable in how they played in the second half compared to the first.
“We thought they were real comfortable offensively so I felt like at half time we needed to up our intensity a bit, try to create some opportunity for our offense and I think we did create a couple turnovers, got layups, and sort of got going,” said Agler in response to his team’s improvements.
Although the flow of the game was slightly halted by quick whistles and reviews of plays, Los Angeles found a way to score 14 points in the period and hold Phoenix to a mere six. There wasn’t much fluidity for either team, but a spark for the home team came in the abilities of Chelsea Gray.
All season she has been an X-factor for Los Angeles when they need a big play she delivers – Tuesday evening was no different. Gray was often found hitting a streaking Parker or Ogwumike cutting to the basket and delivering no look passes.
If Gray wasn’t assisting though, she had a game-high six, she was knocking down her high arching long range shots to fire up her squad once again or getting to the basket and scoring at will.
Physicality was the name of the game, but no moment was more evident than Phoenix’s Emma Cannon starring down Parker after a blocking foul was called with 30 seconds remaining in the third. The scuffle involved Cannon being pushed away from Parker and Los Angeles’ Essence Carson also being involved before the officials gave both Cannon and Carson technicals.
Already momentum was with the Sparks as the Mercury struggled to score, but in that moment, the technicals seemed to fire up Los Angeles who extended its lead to 56-48.
The final period was slightly better overall for Phoenix, however, there still was no cohesion on offense with Diana Taurasi almost none exist with a playoff career low six points, and Griner sitting in foul trouble. In fact, Griner ended up fouling out of the game after receiving her sixth personal foul on an elbow knocking the wind out of Ogwumike.
Originally, there was no foul call, but after the officials reviewed the play, Griner was issued the foul, only adding more pressure to Phoenix – who would step up offensively in Griner’s absence?
It seemed as if the rest of the game became a walk in the park for Los Angeles as Griner was no longer a threat, and newly named Defensive Player of the Year in Alana Beard had kept Phoenix’s other lethal scorer, Taurasi, in check all game. Mitchell tried as she knocked in five three-pointers en route to a team-high 19 points, yet it wasn’t enough. The Sparks walked away with the gritty win, 79-66 over Phoenix.
Even though Game 1 went to Los Angeles, the semifinals aren’t over yet as the Mercury has a chance to redeem themselves on Thursday (Sept. 12) at 10 p.m EST.