September 20, 2021 

Sparks fall short in quest to make the playoffs

After getting the help they needed from other teams, the Sparks couldn't finish an improbable run to the postseason

With just about seven seconds left in the game and the Los Angeles Sparks trailing 87-84 against the Dallas Wings, Erica Wheeler caught the inbounds pass and found herself isolated near the top of the key against Allisha Gray. With the Sparks season on the line, she took a couple of dribbles, stared Gray down, and let loose a potential game-tying shot.

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It was a shot she’s made before, a shot she probably knocks down all the time in practice. But this one hit the side of the rim, Satou Sabally secured the rebound, and the Sparks season was over.

Under the circumstances, it wasn’t a bad shot. Wheeler had a pretty decent look and she’s been the Sparks engine in fourth quarter crunch time situations all season. After the game, Sparks head coach and general manager Derek Fisher acknowledged that the play wasn’t exactly as he had envisioned. But that it’s tough to get a clean look in late-game scenarios and he trusted Wheeler to make the play.

“It was a variation of a similar action we had run an out-of-bounds possession a little earlier and the second time we just altered it a little bit,” Fisher said. “We didn’t execute it cleanly the way it was designed, there was a last little screening action there, between Erica and Nneka that wasn’t as clean as it needed to be. . .late in the game like that it’s always going to be hard to get great looks most of the time, great players just have to figure out how to make a play once the ball is in.”

Earlier in the day, the Washington Mystics lost their final game against the Minnesota Lynx, opening the door for the Sparks to control their own destiny. It was a whirlwind of a final week of the WNBA regular season as the Sparks tried to focus on winning their games while acknowledging they’d need some help from a couple of other teams to make the postseason.

Heading into the final weekend, they needed the Mystics to lose both of their last two games against the New York Liberty, and Minnesota. That’s exactly what happened, setting the stage for the Sparks to sneak into the playoffs with a win against Dallas.

For the most part, the Sparks appeared ready to meet the challenge. They came out aggressive and got a big boost from Te’a Cooper who had 17 points in the first half on several forays to the rim and a few outside jumpers as well.

But a late third-quarter run saw the Wings go up by double-digits and while the Sparks were able to get back into the game and give themselves a chance at the end, they just couldn’t get over the finish line.

After a bit of a slow start, the Sparks did get a star performance from Nneka Ogwumike who finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, two steals, and two blocks. She hit several big three-point shots in the second half to keep the game close as the Wings were trying to blow it open.

After the game, Ogwumike mentioned that she ultimately adjusted to the way the Wings were defending her and that she was able to take advantage of the work she’s put into her shooting.

“That’s something I had worked on the ten weeks that I was out. I knew that I could shoot the three even before I got injured,” Ogwumike said. “I’m just glad I was able to recognize what they were giving me and not fall into the trap of things not going my way initially. As long as I’m out there, there’s an opportunity. I’m grateful to have a coaching staff that really wants to see my game evolve.”

And now with the 2021 season officially over for the Sparks, Ogwumike reflected a bit on what she learned from being around this young team in the final couple of weeks. A team that given their struggles and adversity early in the season. And even after their grueling road trip last month wasn’t exactly a team that looked capable of mounting a run to the postseason.

She looked at the Sparks opponent, the Wings, as an example of what she sees in her own team. That is, a group of inexperienced and young players that when push comes to shove, are responding with a high level of maturity.

“What I learned most is that we have a younger generation of players coming in and ultimately carrying a lot of these teams. . .It’s amazing what they do with less league experience than other teams. They’ve decided to be mature about how they play,” Ogwumike said. “I think that’s something we can learn. When everything was at stake, we saw it these last couple of weeks. We just have to understand that every game is at stake. That’s the maturity, that’s the focus, that’s the investment, that’s the camaraderie that needs to be more consistent, and will be.”

David has been with The Next team since the High Post Hoops days when he joined the staff in 2018. He is based in Los Angeles and covers the LA Sparks, Pac-12 Conference, Big West Conference and some high school as well.

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