September 16, 2021 

Sparks try to stay focused as playoff race winds down

With the regular season winding down, the Sparks will need a little help to get into the postseason

As the Los Angeles Sparks head into the final few days of the regular season, there’s a lot on their minds.

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For starters, they don’t control their own playoff destiny. They currently sit in ninth place, a full game back of the Washington Mystics for the eighth and final playoff spot. They have two games remaining on the road against the Atlanta Dream and the Dallas Wings.

Even if the Sparks win both of those games, they’re going to need an assist or two from a couple of other teams.

The New York Liberty still have a chance to make the postseason. And of course, the Mystics hold the trump card. All Washington has to do is win one of their final two games, against New York and the Minnesota Lynx. And they’re in.

This is going to get a little convoluted here. But here’s essentially what has to happen for the Sparks to make the playoffs.

New York’s loss to the Connecticut Sun last night helped them out. The Sparks are now a full game up on the Liberty. But they’re also going to need the Liberty to also beat the Mystics on Friday night. And they’re going to need the Mystics to lose to Minnesota. Even if the Liberty win on Friday; if the Mystics defeat Minnesota on the final day of the regular season, Washington is in the playoffs.

The best the Sparks can hope for is to win out, and then hope the above scenarios come to fruition. It’s tough and can be nerve-wracking, but that’s the price you pay when you no longer control your destiny. For Sparks head coach Derek Fisher, the goal is to keep the team focused and composed no matter what happens.

“We try and be as supportive as possible to make sure we know they’re human and that we don’t expect them to not feel these things, but to get them to try and center on and focus on the things they really can control in each moment,” Fisher said. “Like the right close out, the right footwork, the right way to catch and receive the basketball within an offensive action, contesting a shot, making sure the shooter gets boxed out on a free throw line situation. When you’re able to focus on those small things, it helps you disconnect from all the other external noise that likes to get your attention.”

And first up on the list of things the Sparks can control is their next game against the Dream. The Dream have already been eliminated from playoff contention, but they are a tough team to play against. They don’t quit, they play hard, and they’ll give everything they have each night.

They’ll also look a little bit different from the team that the Sparks saw back in August right after the Olympic break. Former All-Star guard Tiffany Hayes was still recovering from an injury back then. She didn’t play in the first matchup on Aug. 17 and she was kind of thrown in there in the second meeting on Aug. 22.

She’s since been able to get a little bit of a rhythm going. And she just dropped a season-high 31 points against the Indiana Fever on Tuesday night. She brings a different sort of challenge, one that Sparks defensive ace Brittney Sykes is all too familiar with. Sykes spent her first few years in the league with the Dream and she recalls having to go against Hayes every day in practice.

“That is a hard assignment for the simple fact that Tiff is very shifty and she’s a very quick guard. Those jab-steps, those moments where you think she’s not going to drive it on you or you think she’s not going to take the three and she shoots it, being that a lot of players go under on her, she’s gets a lot of time to get those shots off,” Sykes said. “For me it’s just trying to make her as uncomfortable as possible. . .she’s probably top three quickest jab-steps I’ve ever had to guard and it was hell when I was her teammate.”

But with the season winding down, the playoff race is not the only thing that is on the back of the team’s minds. For many players in the WNBA, they have to report to their overseas teams almost immediately after the season ends. For those that don’t make the playoffs, they may have to report sooner.

That’s something that Fisher understands. And it’s something that may present another challenge when trying to keep the team focused on the remaining games on the schedule.

“I think it’s really difficult in the W with what these women have to manage. It’s not only watching the standings and trying to see who’s going to get in. . .but when you combine that with a high percentage of players thinking about having to report to another country in the next week or two depending on how the team does, they have to battle that in their minds,” Fisher said. “They’re thinking about maybe the last opportunities to see friends and family before they report to that country, on top of what comes with trying to compete for a playoff spot.”

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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