September 3, 2023 

Fatigue may be a factor as Los Angeles Sparks continue push for playoffs

'The games are going to keep coming'

The Los Angeles Sparks have four games left in the regular season. They currently sit at 15-21 and in ninth place in the WNBA standings as they continue to make a push for the No. 8 seed and their first playoff appearance since 2020.

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But after riding high on a six-game win streak, they’ve lost three in a row and most of the momentum they had as the most crucial stretch of the regular season approaches.

They’re also up against another opponent, fatigue. This isn’t just the most important stretch of the season for the Sparks; it’s also one of the most grueling. This stretch features four games in eight days, across four different cities and requiring going West-to-East-and-back-West. Ordinarily, the Sparks might be able to withstand such a stretch, but it has been anything but an ordinary season.

The rotating door of injuries and absences continued with starting wing Layshia Clarendon entering league health and safety protocols on Aug. 29. The Sparks are already without Lexie Brown, who will miss the remainder of the season with a non-COVID illness, and Chiney Ogwumike, who is out with a foot injury.

In the Sparks’ most recent loss at home to the Seattle Storm, head coach Curt Miller was honest in assessing how much fatigue played a factor, especially considering how much defensive attention they paid to Storm star Jewell Loyd.

“I thought we were spending a lot of energy really trapping the ball out of Jewell’s hands,” Miller said. “You’re fatigued to begin with, you spend that much energy on the defensive end, it’s just a really tough night to put together offensively.”

The Sparks’ defense was solid for the most part. They held the Storm to only 38.9% shooting from the field and 21.7% shooting from the three-point line. But as Miller suggested, all their defensive juice seemed to zap their offensive energy. The Sparks shot 30.3% from the field and 28.6% from three-point range.

Throughout the game, the Sparks missed wide-open shots and several easy looks around the basket. They were never able to establish a consistent offensive rhythm. It was a stark contrast from the team that gutted out several close games during its winning streak and found enough offense to keep opponents at bay.

One of the only Sparks who had a good shooting game against the Storm was Karlie Samuelson, who at one point was leading the league in 3-point percentage. But even Samuelson admitted that fatigue could be setting in given the shorthanded roster.

“Layshia is huge for us on both ends of the floor,” Samuelson said. “I think we played pretty solid defense; I mean, they shot 38%. Sometimes that is fatigue when you’re not making shots and layups in the paint. But we just have to keep moving. The games are going to keep coming.”

One of the other Sparks who had a good shooting game against the Storm was Rae Burrell. While the second-year wing has tried to find a consistent role on the team this season, she provided a jolt of energy the team needed.

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Burrell was part of a lineup with rookie Zia Cooke that gave the team a major boost in the fourth quarter, when the Sparks appeared listless and stuck in the mud. She knocked down open threes and shot 4-for-7 from the field while scoring a career-high 10 points.

But she echoed Samuelson’s sentiments about how fatigue could have played a factor in the Sparks missing shots they’ve normally been making.

“I think we played pretty good defense. We put them to the free-throw line a little bit too much,” Burrell said. “Overall, I just think, yeah, fatigued a little bit on the offensive end. We had a few shots that went in and out or were wide open and weren’t able to get through. I think that affected it a little bit.”

The upcoming stretch of games doesn’t get any easier. Three of the Sparks’ last four games are against playoff teams, with two on the road — they start with their final home game against the Washington Mystics on Sunday , before flying East to play the Connecticut Sun on Tuesday and the the New York Liberty on Thursday. Oh, and they then will fly all the way back west to Seattle for the season finale against the Storm on Sunday.

As of Sunday morning, there is no word on when Clarendon will return from health and safety protocols. For the other players, with fatigue beginning to play a role, Miller hinted that he might go with his full bench, which would include Burrell, Cooke and Evina Westbrook playing major minutes.

“We got a tough stretch coming up these last four,” Miller said on Thursday. “We’ll take a day off, a needed day off, and then we’ll get back to work on Saturday for this Washington game. Everybody’s got to stay ready for their number to be called.”

And the Sparks know this: because they lost 3-of-4 to the Sky this season, L.A. does not have the tiebreaker over Chicago. So the Sparks must finished with one win more than the Sky if they want to reach the postseason.

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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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