August 21, 2021
Sparks ‘showing a lot of resolve’ as road test looms
'We’re definitely going to have to take this grit on the road'
Two nights in a row, against the visiting Atlanta Dream both games, the Los Angeles Sparks found themselves in a similar situation.
On Tuesday night, the Sparks trailed 74-72 with 4.7 seconds to go in the fourth quarter. Kristi Toliver caught the ball off the inbounds, made her move to free-throw line extended, and buried a fadeaway jumper to send the game to overtime. The Sparks would prevail in the extra period, 85-80.
On Thursday night, the Sparks would need some late game heroics once again. This time, after allowing the Dream to erase a double-digit second half lead, the game was tied at 64 with almost the same amount of time on the clock.
Once again, Toliver had the ball in her hands. She got off a three-point shot that looked like it might bounce in after hitting the back of the rim, but it bounced off the front of the rim and into the hands of Nneka Ogwumike who put back the miss to give the Sparks a 66-64 win.
The Thursday night win gave the Sparks a three-game win streak to start the second half of the 2021 WNBA season. The last two wins against Atlanta may not have been pretty, but they were impressive for a team that’s been trying to find their identity all season long.
After the game, Sparks head coach and general manager Derek Fisher acknowledged that these types of pressure situations were games that the team might have very well lost in the first half of the season.
“As we’ve gone through our ups and downs, even in these last few ball games, we haven’t given up on each other throughout the course of the game. We’ve always found a way to stabilize and make the next play we need to make in order to pull it out,” Fisher said. “For a group that hasn’t been in these situations together very much, they are showing a lot of resolve and deserve a lot of credit.”
One of the key reasons for the Sparks being able to string together their first extended winning streak of the season is their improved efficiency on the offensive end. In the first half of the season, the Sparks struggled to put together consistent offensive possessions. They were always at the top of the league defensively, but near the bottom when it came to scoring the ball.
For much of the season, the Sparks shot in the high 30’s and low 40’s percentage wise from the field. In the past three games, their offensive efficiency has hovered around 44-45 percent and around 35-36 percent from three-point range. Having two big scoring threats return in Ogwumike and Toliver certainly helps, but the team as a whole has definitely improved in that aspect.
While Ogwumike hadn’t played since June 1, she was still at every game and every practice, watching the team and seeing what needed to be improved. Now that she’s back on the court, she notices a stark difference in the way the offense has produced these last few games.
“The percentage for us is indicative of shot selection. I think as we develop chemistry with each other and understand what shot is right for you and how to put teammates in those positions, and knowing when we go to who, is something we’re getting better at,” Ogwumike said. “Also coming off the ball, not feeling like we have to force it and dribble so much. I think that we’re finally metabolizing what Fish has been reinforcing this whole season and it makes for less arduous offensive possessions.”
While the recent homestand gives the Sparks some much needed momentum as they continue to try and fight for a playoff berth, a much more daunting task appears on the horizon. They will leave the safe confines of Staples Center and hit the road for six straight games. It’s highly likely that this upcoming stretch will determine whether or not the postseason is in the future for the Sparks.
With Toliver back on the court, the Sparks have an additional veteran leader who has been in pressure situations like these before and has hit her fair share of clutch shots prior to Tuesday night’s heroics. She believes that for the team to have experienced close games like this before heading out on the road is crucial to determining how they will respond to the task at hand.
“You never want to be in these tight games, but they’re also great learning opportunities for you, especially the young ones who haven’t had this experience of being in a tight game. Everything’s on the line but still being able to power through, stay confident and stay composed, is big,” Toliver said. “We’re definitely going to have to take this grit on the road. It’s never easy but we know we have a long trip ahead. We’re going to keep that one game a time mentality and take it from there.”