Kathy Goodman: Every win helps
The end of the WNBA season is always a little frenetic. Playoff spots are still unsettled for all but one or two teams and it is not enough to follow your own team; you have to keep an eye on everyone else’s schedule as well.
As the Los Angeles Sparks came in to play the Tulsa Shock on Saturday night, we were finally in a good place -- having beaten Minnesota for a third time this season, we had the tiebreaker over them if necessary -- but we still need every win we can get to be assured a post-season spot.
After our buzzer-beating win against Minnesota on Thursday night, we were still half a game out of the playoffs, but with Washington’s win over Minnesota on Friday night, we were back in fourth place. We needed a win against Tulsa to push us half a game ahead of Minnesota, but we were also watching the score in the New York/Phoenix game to see if Phoenix was going to wrap up the two seed in the West. The playoff picture in the East is even more complicated, since all four spots are up for grabs and only two games separate the top team from fourth place.
As much as we are rooting for other teams to help us, though, at the end of the day, we have to win to advance. We have played Tulsa three times, winning all three times, and Tulsa has been mathematically eliminated from the post-season, but that sometimes makes a team very dangerous. It is easy to look past a team such as Tulsa, since we are on the road and heading home to play Phoenix and Minnesota (again) on Tuesday and Friday. But when a team has nothing to play for but pride, they can often have a good time acting as a spoiler.
After following our last road game through online play-by-play and text messages, I decided I needed to go to see our game in Tulsa live. The Internet is no replacement for live action! The game started fast for the Sparks, and with Tulsa playing the second half of a back-to-back, we had a little advantage in the early going. By the end of the first quarter, the Sparks had shot 70% from the field (with 11 assists on 12 baskets) and led 30-17, setting a Sparks season record for most points in a quarter. The second quarter looked a lot like the first on the Sparks' side of the score sheet -- we shot 50% and had eight assists and no turnovers. Tulsa had started to get their legs under them, though, and ended up playing us closer in the second, shooting over 66%, but we went into the locker room at half-time up by 15. I was happy to watch a game that didn’t look like it was going to have to rely on last-second heroics.
And then there was the second half. Tulsa came out with energy and intensity. They shook off the rust of the first half and played hard and well in the third quarter. Whereas in the first half we had 19 assists and four turnovers total, we had six turnovers in the third quarter alone. Noelle Quinn had scored 11 points in the first half, including shooting three of four from beyond the arc, and Tina Thompson had 17 first-half points, but in the third quarter they each only scored two. Tulsa out-rebounded the Sparks and scored more points in the paint. By the end of the quarter, they had cut our 15-point half-time lead to five points, and it was only an Andrea Riley three-pointer at the end of the quarter that helped push us back up by eight.
The last 10 minutes of the game suddenly became a little more exciting than the first 10 minutes would have promised. Both teams were getting tired and a little sloppy. Our 70% shooting average from the first quarter (although you knew that couldn’t last) dropped to just under 43% in the fourth quarter, and our only saving grace was that Tulsa’s was hovering at about 45%. We let the Shock out-rebound us on both ends of the floor, and our offensive rhythm was disrupted. We played hard at the beginning of the quarter, pushing the lead back up into the double digits, but Tulsa had no intention of going away, playing hard on every possession until, with just over three minutes left, they had again cut our lead to five. We pushed it back up to nine, but three consecutive scoring plays by Ivory Latta suddenly cut the lead to three, with 1:09 left in the game. Although I knew we had just done it to Minnesota, I could not face it if Tulsa beat us on a last-second shot after we led the whole game. The players did not disappoint. As time ran down, the Sparks hit their free-throws, going five of six in the last 50 seconds, and Tulsa did not have enough left. When the final horn sounded, the Sparks had won 92-87.
We have three games left in the regular season, and we are two games out of second place and a half game out of third place. We have our destiny in our own hands, as we play three Western Conference rivals this week: Phoenix, Minnesota and Seattle. The WNBA is always exciting at the end, as everyone jockeys for playoff position. We may not have a game Sunday night, but I will be watching the San Antonio/Minnesota game on NBA-TV and rooting for San Antonio (since they can’t both lose). Every win and every loss counts now, even if it’s not ours.
-- Kathy Goodman, co-owner of the Sparks