August 17, 2023 

Los Angeles Sparks forming physical, tough identity amid playoff push

Multiple injuries have forced the Sparks to adopt a tough, gritty identity

With a little less than one month left in the regular season, the Los Angeles Sparks are knocking on the door of a playoff spot. They’re tied with the Chicago Sky for the eighth and final spot, but the Sky currently hold the tiebreaker with one game against each other remaining.

For the Sparks to be in this position is somewhat of a miracle, considering all the injuries and absences they’ve had this season. Even with most of the roster back in the lineup, they’re still without backup center Chiney Ogwumike, who is nursing a foot injury and starting wing Lexie Brown who is out with a non-COVID illness.

But it’s not quite miraculous intervention that has the Sparks playing better as of late, on a three-game win streak and looking to salvage a disappointing first half of the season. In the past three games against the Indiana Fever, Washington Mystics and Atlanta Dream, the Sparks found themselves in tight games during the fourth quarter.

Earlier this season, the Sparks didn’t do so well in those situations. With the end of the season rapidly approaching and a playoff spot hanging in the balance, they’re thriving in late-game situations. And a big reason why is the physicality and gritty toughness they’ve been displaying.

Against the Dream in particular, Sparks head coach Curt Miller was pleased with the toughness the team showed in the second half.

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“We screened more physical. We talked a lot about our physicality of screening at halftime. . . We really wanted to be a more physical screening team; I thought that started our physicality,” Miller said following the win against Atlanta. “Then I thought we were more aggressive with our dribble getting downhill, putting pressure on them at the rim, really earning calls at the rim instead of hoping for calls.”

If there’s one player on the team who exemplifies the toughness and physicality the Sparks have displayed in these key wins, it’s Jordin Canada.

Canada has arguably been having an All-Star caliber season and has thrived under Miller with a defined role as the team’s starting point guard. The extension of the coach on the floor, Canada has been quarterbacking the team to perfection. She’s putting up a career-high 13.5 points per game, 3.4 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 2.0 steals with shooting splits of 40.3% from the field, 31.9% from 3-point range and 89.8% from the free-throw line.

But her toughness has also come on the other end of the court. Canada is one of the Sparks’ best defensive players and one of the best defenders in the league overall. Some nights she’s guarding opposing point guards, other nights, she finds herself matched up against bigger wings. No matter who is standing across from her, she brings the same intensity.

And she’s been a regular on the floor, being aggressive with her dribble, getting downhill and absorbing contact at the basket that often ends up with her taking a dive. She’s averaging a career-best 4.2 attempts from the stripe.

“I’m always on the ground, so that’s nothing new to me. Teams are going to be aggressive against us. We see that and I think that’s the identity. . . we’re forced to be physical because teams are physical with us,” Canada said following the win against the Dream. “It’s just about continuing to be aggressive and that’s what we did. In the second half, we wanted to get to the line a little bit more and make the play defense. So that was kind of like our mindset, just attacking the paint, drawing fouls and creating opportunities for ourselves.”

With that in mind, there’s perhaps no better backcourt partner on the team for Canada than Layshia Clarendon. Clarendon has been playing small forward for the majority of the season and has been matched up defensively with bigger wings almost every night. Miller has praised Clarendon’s grittiness and physicality all season.

Clarendon has shifted to shooting guard now with Brown out and Karlie Samuelson sliding over to the three. Between Canada and Clarendon, opposing backcourts get hit with a double dose of physicality and toughness.

While the injuries and absences have certainly played a factor in the Sparks adopting this identity, it’s an identity that Clarendon and Canada always play with and a mindset they’d like the team to continue to carry.

“I would say it’s an identity I would want to have; I think JC, too, that’s the type of player we are. To have that grit and that aggressiveness, that toughness, those are the things that help us grind out wins like you saw us do against Indiana and then tonight,” Clarendon said. “The injuries have very much put our backs against the wall and beat us down and drove us through the mud and forced us time and time again to really be gut-checked this season and see how much willingness we have to get back up and keep fighting.”

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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