Sparks Coach Carol Ross's defensive philosophy has helped the team's… (Juan Ocampo / Getty Images )
Carol Ross set the tone early.
In a game against Seattle early this season, the first-year Sparks coach thought that Candace Parker slacked off on a defensive assignment. The play was relatively meaningless, but Ross' subsequent action wasn't.
She benched the team's superstar.
The message was clear: No matter who you are, if you don't play defense, you sit.
"When you play a whole lot of minutes, you have a tendency to take a play off here and there," Ross said. "We want to fight for a championship, so you can't take plays off."
That defensive philosophy has helped invigorate the team's offense.
The Sparks, who return to the court Saturday at Seattle after a five-week break because of the Olympics, have scored 90 or more points seven times this season, more than in any of the last 10 seasons. Last year, they reached that point total in only three games.
"That's because they play defense," Ross said. "There's this myth that scoring points is all about what's happening on the offensive end." But, she said, if a team plays good defense, "you gain more possessions, so you have more opportunities."
A solid portion of the Sparks' scoring is coming on fastbreaks. The team averages 13.5 points in transition; the league averages 10.7.
The Sparks also lead the league in rebounding at 37.6 a game.
"They're playing better defense than they have in the past eight or nine years," said Sparks General Manager Penny Toler.
Still, there is plenty of work to do on the defensive end. The Sparks are still giving up almost 79 points a game, eighth-highest in the 12-team league.
Having Parker healthy has also contributed to the Sparks' uptick in scoring.
In the last two seasons, Parker played in only 27 of a possible 68 regular-season games because of injury. This season, she has missed only one game and is averaging 19 points and 10.2 rebounds.
Kristi Toliver has also emerged as one of the league's top scoring threats. She's averaging 17.4 points this season, compared with 11.2 points last year. And rookie forward Nneka Ogwumike is averaging 14.1 points and 7.6 rebounds.
"We have people who can jump, shoot, shoot threes and get to the rack," said forward DeLisha Milton-Jones, averaging 9.9 points in her 14th WNBA season.
The Sparks are averaging 82.5 points a game, fourth-best in the league. They are 15-6, in third place in the West, a game behind front-running Minnesota.
They aren't the only team that has seen a spike in scoring. The league average has increased from 67.6 points a game a decade ago to 77.9 this year.
The players attribute that to rule changes in 2006 that imposed a 24-second shot clock instead of 30 and created four 10-minute quarters instead of two 20-minute halves. The scoring average jumped from 67.2 points in 2004 to 75.2 in 2006.
"I do remember feeling a significant difference in the game," said Lisa Leslie, who played with the Sparks from 1997 to 2009, helping them win their two championships. "I do remember having in my head that the game is moving faster, it felt longer."
Former WNBA star Rebecca Lobo thinks scoring keeps going up because the talent level in the WNBA keeps rising.
"Players coming in out of college are more skilled offensively than they were 15 years ago," said Lobo, who works as an analyst for ESPN. "All of the rookies now watched the WNBA since middle school and high school and went out in their driveway to mimic those things."
But amid the general scoring rise in the WNBA, the Sparks have managed to stand out this season for reasons much simpler than rule changes or athletic advancements.
"We're at our best when we're defending people," Parker said.
It's a lesson she learned the hard way.