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If you've paid even cursory attention to WNBA commentary this year, you've heard people say repeatedly that the league is better than its ever been as it turns 15.
Games like the Los Angeles Sparks' 74-50 beating of the Seattle Storm only reinforces that notion.
The Storm, widely assumed to be the favorite to win the WNBA title for a second consecutive year prior to the season, simply didn't have the firepower to match the Sparks' hot shooting - they were outshot 49.2 percent to 30.3 percent in their first road game of the season.
Their offensive struggles stem at least partially from their inability to hit outside shots thus far this season - the Sparks were able to sit in a zone for as long as they wanted to and watch as the Storm shot 4-for-20 from the 3-point line. With a long frontline and depth off the bench, the Sparks just kept clicking even after the Storm cut the lead to single digits in the third quarter and outlasted their guests at the Staples Center.
Although the Sparks' hot 54.5 percent 3-point shooting is certainly part of the story of what won them the game, particularly in contrast to the Storm's inability to hit anything from outside, another noteworthy Father's Day story was Kristi Toliver. With her father in attendance, Toliver was more than the 3-point specialist she's often pegged as - Toliver had a well-rounded line of 11 points, five rebounds, and five assists with only two turnovers and not one 3-point attempt. Sparks forward Ebony Hoffman led the Sparks in scoring with 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting and Candace Parker finished with a team-high seven rebounds to go with 10 points.
For the Storm, point guard Sue Bird carried the load with 15 points on 6-for-12 shooting while forward Camille Little chipped in a team-high eight rebounds to go with eight points.
The Storm continue their road trip on Tuesday with a game against the Tulsa Shock, whose frenetic style of play resulted in a road loss for the Storm last year and have made strides this season in adding 6-foot-8 center Liz Cambage as well as former Stanford forward Kayla Pedersen to the roster.
While the Seattle Storm have struggled to find their outside shooting touch for the third consecutive game, the Los Angeles Sparks are showing just how quickly they can pull ahead when their opponents' defensive rotations are even half a second slow.
After finishing the first quarter on an 11-2 run, the Sparks shot 73.3 percent in the second quarter to build a 39-25 halftime lead.
Part of the story lies in the 3-point shooting numbers: the Sparks have outshot the Storm 66.66 percent (4-for-6) to 18.18 percent (2-for-11) in the half. But the other part of the Story is that the Storm have struggled to establish anything inside and are getting beat on the boards in addition to struggling to get their offense going.
Thus far, it hasn't even been a lack of open shots - plenty of those 3-point shots were looks we're used to seeing them knock down - but moreso just being outplayed all around. On the other end, normally reluctant shooter Ticha Penicheiro has hit a three, Candace Parker is attempting whirling passes over her shoulder, and Tina Thompson is 2-for-2 from 3-point range.
Swin Cash leads the Storm with nine points and three rebounds, while Sue Bird has seven points and three assists.
Among the most significant of the Los Angeles Sparks' improvements this season is their 3-point shooting - through three games, they're shooting 10% better than they did last season.
The result, and of course a contributing factor, is far better spacing on the court and the ability to put pressure on the opposing defense to rotate out on their shooters as they continue to move the ball well.
Although forward Candace Parker has had a noticeable impact on facilitating that better shooting, one of the more impressive individual contributors has been third-year guard Kristi Toliver. After struggling to find her comfort zone in her first two seasons, George Toliver - her father and the NBA's Director of Referee Development - described why L.A. has been such a good situation for her in a Father's Day interview on SB Nation's women's basketball site Swish Appeal.
Kristi Toliver's Father-Daughter 'Basketball Connection' Still Evolving With Her WNBA Career - Swish Appeal
"I think Los Angeles' style of play is certainly complementary," George said. "I think the personnel on Los Angeles' team creates some spacing that I think is good. And I just think a positive state of mind, contributed with those two factors, certainly bodes well for how she plays."
The 5'7" guard out of the University of Maryland is currently third on the team with a career-highs 13.3 points per game to go with a 52.6 percent 3-point shooting percentage. And while George cites an increased composure and determination for her improvement, Toliver sees it as a continuation of what she started at the end of last season.
"Towards the end of the season this team started to really click and started to get in a rhythm and playing pretty good basketball," Toliver said in an interview last Friday. "So definitely the previous games that I've been competing in and playing well has given me the confidence to go in to this season and be confident and just play basketball."
Toliver's increasing confidence was evident in her last visit to KeyArena during the Sparks' first round playoff loss to the Seattle Storm last year in which she tied for a team-high 16 points on 6-for-9 shooting. But the Sparks will need more than Toliver's shooting to beat the Storm to launch their 2011 season series.
They opened and closed their regular season with competitive, yet unsuccessful, attempts at beating the Storm at KeyArena and then found themselves at the wrong end of a first round sweep in the 2010 WNBA Playoffs at the hands of the same juggernaut that swept through the post-season unscathed.
Seven tries, seven losses for the Sparks.
Yet in addition to this being a new year, this is also a different Sparks team than the one Storm fans grew familiar with last season - in addition to having star forward Candace Parker back from injury, the Sparks have improved their 3-point shooting nearly 10 percent to complement the ball movement that led to late-season improvement in 2010.
"Our chemistry is really coming along," said Sparks guard Kristi Toliver, who is leading the 3-point improvement with a 52.6 percent shooting percentage from deep. "Right now we're healthy, we have everybody - unlike last season - and we have another year of experience. So with all those things together, we're putting together a pretty good season so far. It can make the difference playing against Seattle."
However, one thing that has remained the same is the Sparks rebounding struggles - having Parker and her team-high 8.3 rebounds per game back is certainly good, but the team as a whole has still struggled a bit on the glass early in the season.
Los Angeles Sparks Versatility Overcomes Rebounding Struggles - Swish Appeal
Rebounding was a problem for the Sparks last season and since outrebounding the Lynx on opening night, the Sparks have had 12 offensive rebounds over the last two games, including three quarters without an offensive rebound (the first half against the Lynx and the first quarter against the Mercury) and one additional quarter (third quarter against the Lynx) with only one offensive rebound. To put that in perspective, the Sparks averaged a league-low 7.64 offensive rebounds last season - they've averaged six over their last two games.
A lack of offensive rebounding wouldn't be a huge problem if they were keeping opponents off the offensive glass, which has been a struggle as well - they are allowing the second most total rebounds per game in the league (37.67)...
In addition to being a focal area for the Storm as they try to get their first road win of the season, the game might also provide some second chance opportunities around the basket for Storm forward Lauren Jackson to find her rhythm this season.
Through three games, Jackson is averaging a career-low 11 points per game as well as matching her career-low with 6.7 rebounds per game. That the Storm have won without the type of production they've come to expect from a player like Jackson is impressive, but her performance today against a solid Sparks team will be something else to watch.