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2010 WNBA Playoffs, Round 1, Game 1

Final score: Storm 79 – Sparks 66 (W) (1-0)

Attendance | 10589

Box Score | Jayda's Game Blog | Live from Press Row

Game Photos | Scott E | Rick | Scott L | Annie | Toni

Before the game started, I was surprisingly calm. Not so with Angie. She had been nervous all day. Me? Nah. In fact, this really didn't feel like a playoff game until the start of the introductions when the Storm added some new playoff twists to the normal routine. I had to wonder, was I just that confident that the Storm were going to win this game? Was I being overconfident? Might they be a little too confident? Nah, just being realistic.

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Even if the Sparks played their hearts out, I really didn't think they had a chance. Not really. Aside from having two of their heavy hitters out for the season (which I haven't seen a lot of whining or complaining from the LA side about "if only Parker wasn't out" — they don't have the right until they've dealt with that kind of crap for a few seasons in a row, right LJ?), they are overrun with the aged and infirm. Yes, Tina Thompson can take over a game and she has enough dagger shots to break the hearts of any opposing fan, but I just didn't think that would be enough. Not tonight. Not against this Storm team. Not this year.

And as it turned out, it took everything the Sparks had to keep the Storm from blowing open the game from the get-go.

The Storm came out with an intensity on defense that we frankly haven't seen for several games. I guess they finally found the "On" button. Through the first quarter, they were playing great defense, constantly switching and doing it very rapidly so that the Sparks player with the ball got no open spaces to drive. They were effectively running out and closing on perimeter shooters any time the Sparks were able to find someone open and ended up either forcing bad shots (and then getting the rebounds) or forcing the shooter to pass off. On one play, one Storm defender ran out on Ferdinand-Harris making her pause and reset to shoot, followed at just the right time by a second run out which forced Marie to get rid of the ball. It was simply excellent defense and the Storm had the clamps down on the Sparks early. In fact, most of the Sparks' first quarter scoring came from free throws instead of field goals. I think they had only one or two layups.

On offense, the Storm were rolling and running almost Phoenix style down the court after rebounds or especially on turnovers. Sue picked Tolliver twice in a row and lead fastbreaks that resulted in easy Storm scores. When they had to go into their half court offense, they went into the post and LJ as much as possible. Like in the last game of the season, LA was switching on LJ and she found herself with a guard defending her. The Storm perimeter players were very quick to recognize the mismatches and got LJ the ball. The Storm ended the quarter up by 10 and looking very good.

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The second quarter was more even between the two teams. The Sparks started to chip away at the score and made adjustments to keep the Storm from going on any big runs. That really was how the rest of the game went. The Storm would kick the lead up to 12 or 13 and the Sparks would respond but only ever get the score back down to 7 or 8. It see-sawed like that until the last part of the fourth quarter when the Storm put in a final push to get back up by as much as 16. I think the Sparks knew that if they allowed the Storm to run off any big run, the game was over. Even from as early as the second quarter.

The way they tried to keep the Storm within reach was the normal LA style... mean and dirty. Delisha Milton-Jones took up her normal task and was really working on LJ all game long. Unfortunately, the refs were letting play go on. I think most Storm fans would agree that it seemed like the refs weren't calling the same fouls on both ends of the court. It certainly appeared that LJ was getting mugged by double and triple teams without getting any calls while Tina could make a step towards the paint and get a foul called (she was especially effective at this after any kind of Storm run — they'd score a couple baskets in a row and she'd get the ball on the next time down the court and get a foul each time).

DMJ was able to succeed in small part against LJ by instigating a shoving match and foul language after the two got tied up in the paint. LJ got a personal and technical foul called on her, which of course was BS. They both should have at least gotten offsetting fouls or double techs. DMJ was obviously the instigator and had been trying to get LJ into foul trouble all night. I was watching her specifically, expecting this kind of stuff, and was surprised how many times during the Sparks' offensive sets that she'd end up with the ball on the perimeter and then drive in against LJ. She's not that much of a scorer or a driving threat — her goal was simply to get fouls on LJ. The Sparks knew they couldn't play straight up basketball, so they had to change their offensive plan so it was more about LJ fouls than actual scoring. Nice.

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While the Sparks were focusing on LJ, the rest of the team picked up the scoring load led by Jana Veselá. That's right my friends. Veselá was the Storm's leading scorer at the half. She was dropping threes during the second quarter like she was in a three-point shooting contest. It caught the Sparks off guard to be sure and took a ton of pressure off LJ.

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The Storm did have a slow down in the second quarter, even with Jana's production. The Storm started to turn the ball over and the Sparks started to switch up their defense, throwing in a zone to force the Storm out of the paint. They didn't stay with the zone, but used it for just a play and then would go back to man-to-man. It was effective and did result in a Storm shot clock violation. The Storm also got a little sloppy with the ball. The Sparks started overplaying the passing lanes and the Storm players weren't nearly as snappy with their passes as they had been earlier. The Sparks were able to get some steals and turn them into fastbreak points. Still, the Sparks were never able to get the score any lower than 7 and the Storm kept coming back and pushing it out to double digits.

To me it really felt like the Storm were on the edge of running wild at any moment, but it never felt like the Sparks had enough in them to take over the game. As I said above, they were giving everything they had to keep the Storm in check. They just didn't have enough to do more than that.

The third quarter got chippy and the Storm finally started going to the line. They only had two free throws through the first half — I know, crazy. With as slap happy as the Sparks were through this whole game it was amazing they had so few calls against them.

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The Storm had another rough patch through this quarter when they stopped moving on offense and Tanisha held the ball too long. They had pushed the lead out to 13 and had a couple opportunities to get more, but they had bad offensive set after bad offensive set and it allowed the Sparks to chip away again. Instead of continuing their passing and good ball movement, they weren't starting their plays until the clock was near 10 seconds. They were basically letting the Sparks rest on defense, so when the play actually materialized the Sparks were able to defend hard. They forced bad shots, bad passes and finally a shot clock violation. Luckily, the Sparks weren't able to really capitalize that much on the Storm's mistakes.

That was the trend as the Storm slowly built their lead. They'd jump out a bit then makes a string of mistakes allowing the Sparks to creep back but never far enough to completely wipe out how far the Storm had jumped out. Storm score 6 points, LA would score 4. Storm would score 5, LA would score 2. By the middle of the fourth quarter, it was basically out of reach for the Sparks as the Storm went on a mini-run to push the score up to 16. The Storm eventually won by 13.

The Storm didn't dominate the game they way they have with some of their other wins this season, but it felt like they were on the edge of it the whole way. Even when they hit their rough spots and let the Sparks have a little hope, it felt like all they had to do was clamp down on defense a little harder and take control. I, of course, wanted to see a crushing defeat. I'll take a domination-lite win instead.

Other notes:

The upper bowl on the west side of the arena was open between sections 218 and 211, and there were plenty of people up there. I know many or most of those people were at the game on free tickets (we had 2 that we gave away), but no matter. I'm a firm believer in the "you see one game, you'll be back" mindset. They'll be back.

The normal pregame fan warm-up video was interrupted with a playoff, home court advantage focused video montage with quotes from opposing players and coaches on how hard it is to play at KeyArena. Oh, and it was set to "O Fortuna" from the Carmina Burana. If that piece of music doesn't get you pumped up, nothing will. When that was played, I knew it was playoff basketball.

For the LA introductions, of course they played the Empire March from Star Wars. Also, the announcer made a point to say that LA ended up in "fourth and last place" in the Western Conference. Nice.

The big reveal before the game was the gigantic "We are home court advantage" banner in the rafters on the south end of the arena. Containing more than 6000 names of season ticket holders, it was truly an awesome sight and really got the crowd rocking. As an aside, this was just another in a long string of things the owners and team management have done recently that have just felt right. I can't tell you how happy I am that they are running this team and organization.

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The wave got started down on the south end of the arena during the fourth quarter and made a few laps. It was odd and a little distracting. People seemed to get into it, but I didn't like it. Fine for football and soccer, but not really for basketball.

One thing I really like to see were all the signs. Tons of signs and not just the ones the Storm put out in the first 10 rows or so.

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