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Kathy Goodman: Pressure

July 6, 2009 |  6:53 am

Sparks_240 I was talking to my mother on my cellphone the way to the game.  It is a ritual before every game that I text or e-mail Penny Toler and ask her if we are going to win, and before every game she replies with some version of "yes."  (The day Penny sends back something that is the equivalent of "no" is the day I will probably turn the car around, go home and call in sick.)  So, knowing this, my mother asked whether Penny thought we were going to win this game against the Phoenix Mercury, and I said, "Yes."  But I was also thinking about pressure. 

I thought about the Sparks being undefeated at Staples this season.  And not just undefeated, but winning games by 20 or more points.  That seemed like a lot of pressure.  And, of course, the big story of the game was Candace Parker returning to our active roster.  There was that pressure on her shoulders.  And that also put pressure on the rest of the team that if they could win without Candace, then the pressure was on to jump to another gear the second she was sitting on that bench with a Sparks uniform on.  A lot of pressure.  Finally, this was our last home game for over four weeks, and, well, we haven't been good on the road (what's the opposite of "undefeated"? "Unwinning"?), so we better get a win here.  Pressure, pressure, pressure.

During the first quarter, I relaxed a little bit.  The expected Michael Jackson fans were milling around the arena but didn't seem to make it impossible to get in, as we had feared.  (The street closures around Staples Center were an interesting complexity but were workable for experienced Angelenos.) Once the game started, we won the jump and scored immediately -- that always makes me happy.  There was the added bonus of Cappie Pondexter committing a foul on the opening play, and that was a good thing. We had a new in-arena host who hit her marks and was really enthusiastic, so that made me happy. Candace entered the game after three minutes to a big ovation from the crowd. And we ended the first quarter tied 28-28, which was a huge score, meaning the game was also fun to watch on TV (it was being broadcast on Fox Prime Ticket), so that made me happy. So far, I wasn't really feeling the pressure.

Second quarter, we played Sparks basketball. Seven assists and one turnover.  Another 23 points scored to the Mercury's 17, and we went into the locker room up by six.  It had been a high-flying first half.  We had limited Diana Taurasi to nine points, and she had three fouls. Noelle Quinn had put an exclamation point on the half by chucking up an impossible falling-out-of-bounds-behind-the-backboard-buzzer-beating heave that had improbably found its way through the hoop. If we played like that for the last 20 minutes, we would remain undefeated at home.

Carla and I often "visit" people at halftime. We go chat with sponsors, season-ticket holders we know, friends and family who are in the arena.  One of the people I said hello to was a special-education teacher from the high school where I teach. He was in the arena to watch his niece DeWanna Bonner, a rookie from Phoenix, play. I jokingly told him, "You can root for DeWanna personally but don't forget you live in L.A., so you better be rooting for a Sparks win." He promised me he would.  I lived to eat those words.

Have I mentioned before that the Sparks are not a third-quarter team?  I always get a bit nervous when we come out of the locker room in the second half, hoping we take it seriously from the start. The Sparks were taking it seriously.  We scored right away, trading baskets with Phoenix for the first minute and a half.  And then we went away.  Not really sure now what happened. Was it the pressure finally getting to us? In one quarter, we went from ahead by six to down by 11 -- a 17-point turnaround.  And DeWanna Bonner, who scored just three points in the first half, scored 12 of those points (coupled with six rebounds) in just over six minutes of playing time. 

Diana Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter -- they're going to get their points.  You want to slow them down, contain them, try to get them in foul trouble.  We'd done a pretty good job on them.  But Bonner was showing exactly why this is not your mother's WNBA.  She may have been in elementary school when  Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson were playing at USC and started their careers in the WNBA.  She may still have been in middle school when Betty Lennox won Rookie of the Year.  She was in high school when Diana Taurasi was dominating at UConn and was drafted No. 1 by the Phoenix Mercury in 2004. But in 2009, she played  like she was a veteran.  She did not appear to be feeling any pressure. The Mercury outscored us 36-19 in that third quarter (one-third of those Mercury points from Bonner), and it was on to the last 10 minutes of play.

The third quarter was terrible for us, but Carla and I, scrutinizing the box score, couldn't quite figure out how we had fallen so far behind.  We were almost even in shooting percentage with Phoenix (46%-47%); they had slightly edged us on rebounds (a three-rebound differential in their favor); and we had done a great job holding onto the ball -- only eight turnovers (with 17 assists) to their 12 turnovers and 12 assists.  How were we down by 11?  Maybe it was their seven three-point baskets to our two. Maybe it was their 24 free throws to our 16.  But that meant we were playing OK -- we just needed to stop sending them to the free-throw line and extend our defense a little.  If even one of our players could get on track, we were still in the game.

The fourth quarter did not start well. It took us almost four minutes to score, while Phoenix racked up another 11 points.  Betty Lennox then appeared to be done with this.  She rose to the pressure.  In the next 2 1/2 minutes, she reeled off nine points, scoring in every possible way -- from the free-throw line, the three-point line and a couple of jump shots.  But it took too long and it was too late.  We had succumbed to the pressure.  Our home-court winning streak was broken.

We head out on the road now for the next seven games.  We're going to have to win there to get ourselves where we want to be in September.  Well, as long as there's no pressure.

-- Kathy Goodman, Sparks co-owner

Photo: Sparks owners Kathy Goodman, left, and Carla Christofferson cheer during a game against the Sacramento Monarchs June 2, 2007. Photo credit: Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times.