The Los Angeles Sparks and Seattle Storm are very different teams from when they first met this season on June 19.
The Storm (16-12) are starting to find a rhythm with center Lauren Jackson back from injury while the Sparks (12-16) were picking up wins against a generally weak schedule until the Tulsa Shock exploited their poor defense and rebounding to end a WNBA record 20-game losing streak.
Nevertheless, part of what makes rivalry games great is that you have to throw out a lot of what has happened outside of the bubble of this matchup - there are times when the underdog will win in spite of everything else that's occurring around them. And in this particularly case, that first meeting still looms large even if these two teams seem headed in opposite directions in many respects.
With both Jackson and Candace Parker healthy for the Storm and Sparks respectively, the Sparks handed the Storm a 24-point drubbing at Staples Center back in June. Playing in KeyArena is certainly different, but that loss stands out as an example of not only how good the Sparks can be but also how easily their depth can overwhelm the Storm if they fall into bad habits.
Both Jackson and Parker have played near-MVP caliber basketball in their returns from injury, although they help their teams in very different ways. Jackson has balanced a Storm offense that can far too easily shoot themselves out of a game by settling for jumpers by providing a dominant interior force even in limited minutes. Parker hasn't necessarily dominated one aspect of the game but does a little bit of everything for a Sparks team that isn't actually playing that well in winning five of their last eight games.
Parker has nearly matched her career averages in her return with 16.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game in her six games back from injury since August 16. Most notably though, Parker is shooting a scorching 58.8 percent from the 3-point line in those six games, which is well above her career mark. That only adds to a team that is already tops in the league from beyond the arc with a 41.2 percent 3-point percentage.
Meanwhile, Jackson is still not putting up quite the averages we might be used to, but has improved dramatically since the beginning of the season. Jackson's numbers are up across the board since her return, averaging 15.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game in her three games back from injury. But more importantly, she's doing that in only 20.7 minutes per game, which is extremely efficient basketball.
With Jackson back in action, the Storm are fighting to maintain their current standing as second place in the Western Conference, a half game ahead of the Phoenix Mercury who are across the country to face the struggling Washington Mystics. For the Sparks, they're looking for wins just to get into the playoffs as they're currently in fifth place and 1.5 games behind the fourth place San Antonio Silver Stars who face the first place Minnesota Lynx at home.
With stars back in action for the first time since a bad loss in L.A. and playoff implications for both teams, this game stands to create a great atmosphere in KeyArena and add yet another chapter to one of the league's great rivalries.