August 11, 2023
Sparks inch closer to finding winning combination
Amid a season full of injuries, the Sparks may have found something that works
With the Los Angeles Sparks at the tail end of a three-game road trip, trailing the Indiana Fever and trying to come away with a win to keep pace in the playoff standings, head coach Curt Miller trotted out a lineup he had never used before.
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Layshia Clarendon, who has played on the wing all season, was shifted back to her natural point guard position. Evina Westbrook, who has only been with the team for a little more than a week on a hardship contract, was at small forward. Karlie Samuelson was shifted to power forward. Nneka Ogwumike was patrolling the middle at center. Jasmine Thomas, who has struggled to find a consistent rhythm after recovering from an ACL injury, was slotted at shooting guard, replacing Jordin Canada.
When Canada finally returned to the game, replacing Westbrook with a little over two minutes to go, the new lineup had rattled off a 12-0 run to take firm control of the game.
For Miller, that was the turning point in the game. That lineup, that hadn’t played a minute with each other to that point, came up with one of the biggest wins of the season. Miller knew it was a gamble, especially forcing Samuelson to defend bigger post players at the four but, as he mentioned postgame, the chess match was won.
“That unit played with a grit and a determination and made some timely threes…we were able to spread the floor a little bit more and get some stuff we wanted,” Miller said.
“We’ve lost some close games early in [the] year. We’ve talked about this before, some of the learning lessons, some of the failures, you let a late lead up, you learn from and grow from — and I think you’re seeing it pay off. There’s more of a determination, there’s more of a composure by this group. There’s more of a style that they want to play through and who to play through. I thought we kept it pretty simple. It wasn’t always perfect but we kept it simple and got to the finish line.”
One of the biggest changes with that different lineup was shifting Clarendon back to point guard. This whole season, they’ve been playing on the wing mostly at small forward, a position they’ve never played before. But with the Sparks needing some kind of jolt, there they were with the ball in their hands running the offense as they’ve done so many times before in their career.
Clarendon ultimately finished with 17 points, five assists and a perfect 3-3 from the three-point line. Clarendon mentioned that they were able to catch up with Fever general manager Lin Dunn, whom they played for as a rookie with the Fever, before the game. They credited Dunn with molding them into a complete point guard and how that manifested on the court throughout the fourth quarter.
“[Dunn] was the coach I played for my rookie year and the person that was so hard to play for…that helped propel me to be the point guard that I am today,” Clarendon said. “It was always my fault if something didn’t go right and those kinds of lessons have really carried me a long way. I’m a point guard naturally, for nine years…it’s still in there, it’s like riding a bike getting back and playing the one.”
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While Miller mentioned that the Sparks were having difficulty getting into the paint due to the Fever’s size, sometimes the game is less about matchups and X’s and O’s and more about who is going to go out there and put forth 100 percent effort and energy. Sometimes those little things that don’t always show up on the stat sheet are the things that make the difference between winning and losing.
“I think that lineup at the end was just about who is going to go out there and fight, giving that energy. I think that we let that define how we finished the game rather than focusing so much on matchups,” Ogwumike said. “Obviously we had Karlie down there, but Karlie is fearless even against NaLyssa Smith who is a force to be reckoned with inside. She did what she could and she got stuff the way she could and we supported her in that way. Likewise on the offensive end, [Clarendon] coming down with great tempo and control and us playing to the rhythm of her beat and ensuring that we’re getting good shots and finishing off plays [ultimately led] to some really good possessions at the end.”
Written by David Yapkowitz
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.