July 7, 2021
How Los Angeles’ defense is keeping team afloat
Offense remains a problem, however
Welcome to The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited and photographed by our young, diverse staff, dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives and projections about the game we love.
Subscribe to make sure this vital work, creating a pipeline of young, diverse media professionals to write, edit and photograph the great game, continues and grows. Paid subscriptions include some exclusive content, but the reason for subscriptions is a simple one: making sure our writers and editors creating 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage get paid to do it.
The Los Angeles Sparks may have lost six of their last seven games, including four in a row, but the fact remains that whomever is their opponent for the night is in for a tough time.
The team remains at the top of the league when it comes to the defensive end. They’re allowing only around 80 points per game, which is good enough for third in the WNBA and they’re forcing a league-leading 17.9 turnovers per game.
But amidst a rash of injuries, it’s been a struggle for the Sparks to put points up on the board. Their 74.5 points per game is ahead of only the 2-16 Indiana Fever and their 39.9 percent shooting from the field is at the bottom of the league.
With the injuries to Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver, all players used to shouldering a heavier offensive load, other players on the roster have been asked to step out of their comfort zone and are tasked with expanding their offensive output that they really haven’t had to do in their careers thus far.
According to Sparks head coach Derek Fisher, the Sparks are getting good looks on the offensive end, and their struggles are a combination of both unfamiliarity with new roles and just simply not taking advantage of the scoring opportunities they have.
“It’s a little bit of a combination of those two things. It’s a different experience as a player when you go from 14 minutes to 30 minutes, nine minutes to 22 minutes, whatever the difference is,” Fisher said. “But even within that, there definitely are some opportunities we can convert better on whether that’s around the rim or understanding when that right shot opportunity is that’s in rhythm and that will be a good shot for that possession.”
The Sparks did show some improvement on that end in their past two games. After suffering a lopsided 99-75 loss to the Las Vegas Aces on June 30, the Sparks turned in a much better effort the following game also against the Aces. Albeit still falling short, 66-58, the team was in the game throughout the fourth quarter and had their chances to pull out a win.
They followed that up with another strong effort on the Fourth of July against the Seattle Storm, but came up short once again, 84-74. Against the Storm, the Sparks at one point took a 58-52 lead in the second half before Seattle regained control of the game.
Even so, the Sparks strong defense and better offensive execution gave them chances to steal wins against the two best teams in the league. Despite the losses, it’s an improvement from just a week ago.
One of the key differences on the offensive end against the Storm was the Sparks ability to get to the rim. They got to the line 17 times and didn’t miss a single free throw. A big part of that effort was Brittney Sykes, who has started to settle in and look more comfortable offensively as the season has progressed.
Sykes loves to shoot from midrange, but against Seattle she didn’t settle for jumpshots. She put the ball on the floor and attacked Seattle’s defense the entire night, earning seven trips to the line. After the game, Sykes acknowledged that attacking off the dribble and recognizing when they have driving lanes is key to helping jump start the team’s offense.
“I think it’s a big start. I just realized that because of who my teammates are, it allows me to get to the lane a little bit faster. When I get there, I know that I have teammates ready to shoot,” Sykes said. “I’m having so much fun slicing and dicing and cutting up teams on defense and I think as games go on, we’ll start to play off each other. We started to show glimpses of that tonight where it might not have been a screen, it might have been a slip screen, and we’re starting to read the defense better. We’re getting there.”
Some of the Sparks offensive struggles can be chalked up to simply running out of gas. The team has only nine available players and Fisher often uses only an eight-player rotation. It can be tough to maintain offensive efficiency when healthier teams are able to come at the Sparks in waves.
Erica Wheeler, who has settled in as the Sparks primary ball-handler and point guard, has noticed fatigue playing a factor down the stretch in the team’s most recent losses.
“We’re down bodies, it’s very hard to sustain that. I think we just got a little tired and lost a little bit of focus,” Wheeler said. “But at the end of the day we have eight players, it’s enough. It gets frustrating at times because we get tired, but at the end of the day it’s our job. When one of our sisters is down, or two or three of them are down, we just got to step it up.”