September 8, 2023 

Sparks’ playoff hopes hanging by a thread as injuries pile up

How the Sparks can still reach the postseason, explained

When Stephanie Talbot suffered a season-ending injury before the year even began, perhaps that should have been a harbinger of things to come for the Los Angeles Sparks.

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It’s a season that has been marred by a rotating injury list and the Sparks now find themselves on the verge of being eliminated from playoff contention following their 96-89 loss Thursday to the New York Liberty.

Just a few weeks ago, the team was riding a six-game win streak and renewed optimism as they surged into the playoff picture. They’ve since dropped four of their last five games and have seen Nneka Oguwmike and Karlie Samuelson, two of the most consistent players this season, added to the injury report.

Ogwumike has missed the last three games with a knee injury while Samuelson has missed the last two due to an abdominal injury she suffered during the Sparks win against the Washington Mystics last Sunday.

While this team has certainly shown some fight and mental toughness, it’s just tough to compete being so short-handed. In all his years of coaching, including college basketball, Sparks head coach Curt Miller has never seen a season quite like this one.

“I shared with them that I’ve been a part of 13 college championships, had a lot of success in this league with two teams in the Finals,” Miller said following the loss to the Liberty. “That was something special, what we laid on the line and how hard we played through all the adversity and injuries that we’ve had this year, I can’t be more proud of them.”

With one game left in the regular season against the Seattle Storm, the Sparks are not quite out of the playoff picture just yet. They can make things easier for themselves by winning that game this coming Sunday in what is the final day of the regular season.

That’s not going to be good enough, though. They’re going to need some help in the form of the Chicago Sky. The Sky are currently a half a game ahead of the Sparks in the standings. They have two more games remaining on their schedule, against the Minnesota Lynx and the Connecticut Sun.

The Sparks would need the Sky to lose both games to keep their playoff hopes alive. A single win by Chicago and the door will officially be closed on the Sparks 2023 season no matter what happens against the Storm.

Despite that, whether the Sparks end up making the playoffs or not, Miller has been pleased with what the team has been able to accomplish in terms of setting themselves up for the future.

“We’ll look back on this journey here in LA and this build as the adversity that we faced will only make us tougher. This league is always going to be a league where you have to pivot through adversity. Every team goes through it, but what we’re going through this year I think will really help us in the future,” Miller said. “What we have been able to establish even with some revolving doors. . .we’ve established a defensive culture that is going to be disruptive. . .we’ve just had a terrific defensive season considering all the shuffling of the lineups.”

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Perhaps the biggest things Miller has been able to take away from this season is how hard this group works and how they’ve continued to stick together regardless of how the year has gone.

When teams hit adversity, things sometimes go south. That hasn’t happened with this version of the Sparks. This group has continued to push through 17 different starting lineups and has bought into Miller’s vision.

“It’s been them, willingness to master the monotony and we walk into that film room every single day with a mindset to learn and to get better and we apply it,” Miller said. “It’s not easy to play for me. We know we’re probably the most scout heavy, film-driven staff in the league, and they have just continued. The growth from May to now is crazy to watch what we were doing on film in May compared to now.”

17 different starting lineups. Despite clear signs of growth, it’s hard to overcome that and reach the playoffs. Now they’ll need some help to make it happen.

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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