The Sparks beat Utah five times this year--twice in the playoffs--because they were able to put up big numbers against the Starzz. In their first game, July 7, the Sparks scored 102 points. On Saturday, they got 103. In between, they never scored fewer than 75.
But the numbers that got the Sparks back to the WNBA Finals were 24-2. That was the supersized scoring run the Sparks rolled on Utah midway in the first half, a run that broke the will, the hearts and the pride of the Starzz and led to a 103-77 victory at Staples Center.
Guard Jennifer Azzi's three-pointer with 13:15 left in the first half gave Utah its biggest lead, 16-10. For the next 6:38, the Starzz could muster only two free throws by Marie Ferdinand.
And the Sparks got hot.
DeLisha Milton began the surge with a 16-foot jumper. That was quickly followed by a layup by Lisa Leslie, and another Milton jumper to tie the score.
Then came the pivotal play. Utah guard Adrienne Goodson rebounded a missed Sparks' shot and turned up court. She didn't see Latasha Byears, who had just replaced Leslie, standing in her path.
Byears tapped away the ball, Nikki Teasley scooped it up and fed Byears for an easy layup.
Although the score would be tied, for the last time, on Ferdinand's free throws, the Starzz looked like grilled steaks before hikers returning from a 10-mile walk. The Sparks threw a net over Utah, which didn't help itself by taking the first open shot it had. The Starzz' misses were turned into fastbreaks by the Sparks.
Tamecka Dixon slashed through the lane, threw in a 12-footer and was fouled for a three-point play. Milton nailed a three-pointer. Leslie, back in the game, dribbled toward the basket, then put a spin move on Goodson that left her on Figueroa Street while Leslie had an easy deuce. The next time down, all five Sparks touched the ball, working it around until the Starzz were out of the way for another easy shot.
Seattle Coach Lin Dunn, working as a television analyst on Saturday, shook her head. "They're too good when they run," she said of the Sparks. "You have to slow down every possession. You should never shoot with more than three seconds left on the clock."
Sixteen straight points later, the 24-2 run was done. The Sparks were ahead, 34-18, and could start checking air fares to New York and Washington.
"That was like the old Lakers' 'Showtime,' " said Coach Michael Cooper, who should know. "You had some of everything in there in that stretch. That was some of the best basketball I've ever seen us play in my three years here. They executed on offense, executed on defense, they were playing together; even the players on the bench felt they were part of it."
For the Sparks, it was just a matter of playing their game.
"You don't really realize the kind of run you put on a team until it's over, when someone calls a timeout or there's a dead ball," Dixon said. "Then you look at the scoreboard and go, 'Wow!' Then you want to focus on not letting them back in the game. I remember seeing we had a substantial lead and thinking, 'We have to put them away now.' "
But some of the Sparks sensed something special was taking place.
"It's a scary feeling, because this is what we've been trying to get to all season," Sophia Witherspoon said. "When we play like this, we feel no one can stop us. The team is starting to see its destiny."
Added Byears: "It was like a wave of energy that touched us. You could see everybody was clicking. And it was beautiful to watch."
Unless you were from Salt Lake City.
"Basketball is a game of momentum," Azzi said. "And when a team gets rolling, especially one with this much talent, they are impossible to stop."