Kathy Goodman: The regular season ends; the playoffs begin
The last time the L.A. Sparks faced the Seattle Storm was Fourth of July weekend. Seattle handed us our 12th loss only 16 games into the season. The long view of history would tell you that having ESPN televise a final regular-season game between L.A. and Seattle at the end of August would make sense -- since L.A. and Seattle have a long rivalry in the postseason -- but looking ahead on Fourth of July weekend might have resulted in skepticism. We had lost Candace Parker to her season-ending shoulder injury, and Betty Lennox sat out for knee surgery. We were losing about three times as often as we were winning, and the last game of the season seemed far away.
Looking ahead to this game two weeks ago also might not have engendered much enthusiasm. Seattle had clinched not just a spot in the playoffs, but also the No. 1 spot and home court advantage throughout the playoffs. L.A. was still fighting but could possibly have been eliminated from contention if we didn’t get some crucial wins coming down the stretch.
In the end, it turned out ESPN had chosen exactly the right game to televise at the end of the regular season. The Sparks were surging, having won seven of our last 11 games and clinching a playoff spot in Friday night’s game against Minnesota. Seattle had taken a few games off leading into Saturday’s match-up with the Sparks, since, with their postseason position locked, all they needed was to preserve their athletes for the playoffs, but they also had been undefeated at home, and Saturday night was their last night to defend it. As a result, the game on Saturday between Seattle and Los Angeles was a barnburner, coming down to a battle of buzzer-beaters, and Seattle protected their home court for the 17th time this season with a final score of 76-75.
The first quarter was emblematic of the game. Seattle and L.A. played to a 20-20 tie, each shooting 50% from the field, and no one was resting anyone. The arena in Seattle was sold out and loud, and I wasn’t sure if this was the final game of the regular season or if the playoffs had begun. Throughout the first half, the game was mostly trading baskets, though the Sparks at one point led by as much as eight, and the Storm’s biggest lead was five. By halftime, the Storm held a three-point advantage with, predictably, Lauren Jackson leading the Seattle team with 16 points and Tina Thompson leading L.A. scorers with 12.
Having played a very tough game Friday night and having traveled very early to get to Seattle for Saturday’s game, the Sparks might have been forgiven for some sloppy or fatigued play in the second half. The third quarter was definitely tough for the Sparks, as they started strong but let the Storm pull away with a 10-point lead late in the quarter, ending it down six to Seattle. With an early flurry in the first minute of the fourth quarter, Seattle pushed the lead back up to 12. The Storm might have thought they smelled blood in the water, but these were not the pre-All-Star-break Sparks. Instead, the players put their heads down and played harder. For virtually the rest of the quarter, the Sparks went on a 15-2 scoring run, capped by a wide-open Tina Thompson three-pointer that put the Sparks up by one with 1:36 left in the game.
ESPN could not have asked for a better last minute and a half. The Key Arena crowd was on its feet, willing the Storm team to keep its perfect record at home (a feat only ever previously accomplished by the Sparks.) With 50 seconds left, Tanisha Wright threw up an ugly-looking shot almost from behind the basket that bounced around the rim two or three times before settling in to put the Storm back up by one. Both teams played disciplined and hard-nosed defense that meant the refs didn’t need to call any fouls and a Tina Thompson miss was followed by a Tanisha Wright miss. When Tina corralled the rebound for the Sparks, she called a timeout with 6.1 seconds left.
The Sparks in-bounded the ball, worked it to Kristi Toliver, who passed to Marie Ferdinand-Harris, with a clean look at the basket. The ball went up, bounced on the rim and fell off, with Lauren Jackson coming up with the final rebound as the clock expired. The crowd exploded as Seattle remained undefeated at home.
I know we have to wait until San Antonio and Minnesota play their final games Sunday to know for sure exactly who the Sparks will meet in the first round of the playoffs, but I am not sure the playoffs didn’t begin Saturday night as the regular season ended for Seattle and L.A.
-- Kathy Goodman, co-owner of the Sparks
Photo: The Sparks' Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton and the Seattle Storm's Swin Cash at the Aug. 21, 2010, barnburner in Seattle. Credit: Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times