September 11, 2021 

Sparks’ playoff hopes take a dive with loss to Connecticut

While Los Angeles is still mathematically alive in the playoff race, its most recent loss put a serious dent in that goal.

With a grueling six-game road trip in the rearview, the Los Angeles Sparks finally returned home to Staples Center on Thursday night facing what was pretty much a must-win game against the visiting Connecticut Sun.

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The Sparks began the second half of the season on a promising note, winning four straight, including the first game of their road trip against the New York Liberty. They proceeded to lose the next five games and, with the end of the season rapidly approaching, saw their playoff hopes begin to evaporate. 

Coming into Thursday night’s game, they still sat a mere half game out of the eighth and final playoff spot, with both the Liberty and the Washington Mystics ahead of them. A win would’ve gone a long way toward snatching that spot and controlling their own destiny. 

But with the stakes as high as they were, the Sparks sure didn’t look like they got the memo. The Sun blitzed the Sparks early, getting out to a blistering 17-0 lead that the Sparks were never able to recover from. 

As the game went on, the Sparks gradually began to find their rhythm and ultimately played Connecticut even after the first quarter. But that poor start doomed them from the get-go. 

After the game, Sparks head coach and general manager Derek Fisher chalked the poor start up to his team not being prepared mentally to meet the importance of the situation.

“Before the game even started, it just looked like Connecticut was more prepared to handle the intensity and performance anxiety that comes with playing in an important game. We couldn’t get out of our own way in a lot of ways,” Fisher said. “We just have to learn from it and strive to get better individually and collectively. It’s just a confirmation of how much work we have to do to get better.”

The Sparks were only outscored 56-49 from the second quarter on, shooting 41.8 percent compared to Connecticut’s 44.2 percent. The Sun only hit one more three (3-for-13) than the Sparks (2-for-10). And despite being outrebounded 32-19, the Sparks only had six fewer second-chance points (12-6) than the Sun. 

The major differences in the game were the Sparks’ poor start and the disparity in free throws. The Sun got the line 29 times, connecting on 26 of those attempts, while the Sparks only shot 11 free throws, hitting nine. The aggressiveness and physicality of the Sun only further illustrated how much more ready they were for a game of this magnitude. 

According to Nneka Ogwumike, in order for the Sparks to have the necessary mindset to play well in games of this magnitude, they need to do a better job of responding when things don’t go their way. 

“You have to have that mindset of preparedness and focus, and we just have to tap into that as a collective, especially when things don’t go well for us. It’s all about composure; I’ve said that from the beginning,” Ogwumike said. “Maintaing that composure together no matter what’s happening and understanding that as a team we can control certain things. There’s certain unforced errors that we have and we’re playing [a] great team. They’re going to challenge us and how we respond is really what’s telling of us.”

In the end, it was the Sparks’ inability to rise to the occasion that doomed them. While they eventually were able to settle down and play their style of basketball, the early hole they dug was too much to overcome. 

Fisher likened the lack of preparedness to when two people are standing on a rock holding hands and both have agreed to jump off the rock and into the lake together on the count of three.

“If I’ve never done this with you before, at the count of three I jump and you stay. If you’ve never really been there before like that on the edge of that cliff looking over, I’m not sure if I want to jump because I don’t know if you’re going to jump,” Fisher said. “You’ve got to learn who’s going to jump with you before you both are willing to jump. If you’ve never been to the playoffs before, you don’t know what that feels like.”

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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