Sparks pound Sky to go 2-0 in semifinal series

Jantel Lavender goes up for two of her 20 points in semifinal game two. She was 10-11 shooting. Photo by Benita West/T.G.Sportstv1.
Jantel Lavender goes up for two of her 20 points in semifinal game two. She was 10-11 shooting. Photo by Benita West/T.G.Sportstv1.

Los Angeles, Calif. – With high energy and quick ball movement, the Los Angeles Sparks again dominated the Chicago Sky Friday in the WNBA semifinals, 99-84. They are 2-0 in the series and could punch a ticket to the Finals with a win Sunday.

Candace Parker had 20 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists for the Sparks, and Jantel Lavender added 20 on 10-11 shooting. Three other Los Angeles players were also in double figures.

As in game one, the Sparks heated up midway through the first quarter, taking the lead for good at the 5:33 mark. Chicago had six players in double digits and outscored their hosts in the paint. But they shot only 38 percent on the night, struggling since losing top scorer Elena Delle Donne to a thumb injury before the playoffs.

Los Angeles coach Brian Agler credited the Sky, and said his team has to shore up their turnover margin.

“They were playing with a lot of passion and energy trying to be aggressive in pick-and-roll defense and trying to create some turnovers to help them offensively,” Agler said of the visitors. “There were some errors we have to get better at; we didn’t play clean down the stretch. During the second half we turned it over quiet a bit. If we play efficiently then we have a good basketball team. Chicago caused some issues for us tonight.”

Nneka Ogwumike, who had 18 points for the Sparks, was crowned the league’s regular-season MVP Wednesday. The same night, Lavender was presented the Sixth Woman honor. Both Ogwumike and Parker – a two-time MVP herself – had high praise for their teammate.

“Jantel is down to do whatever,” Ogwumike said. “She’ll set a screen, run, rebound, box out-anything. She’s that front court push that really helps us continue with the flow of our game and then when she comes in as well, we’re able to integrate our big line up, which really adds to the dimension of our team.

Parker called Lavender “a microwave.”

“She comes in, heats up, does what she’s supposed to do,” Parker said. “She plays phenomenally.”

Nneka Ogwumike goes to the basket against the Chicago Sky. Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images.
Nneka Ogwumike goes to the basket against the Chicago Sky. Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images.

The Sparks are seeing their first return to the Finals since 2008, Parker’s rookie year. Parker said she was cognizant of each year she and teammates have had to discuss post-game playoff losses since then.

“It’s crazy because when we walked in this (press conference) room I turned to Nneka and was like, this room in the past hasn’t been the best for us,” Parker said. “We had to do a lot of press conferences talking about next year and how we need to improve. My rookie year seems like it was yesterday and we barely missed the Finals, and when I left the court I thought we’ll be back next year. However, that hasn’t happened.”

Parker reiterated a team theme this season, focusing on details and attacking one game at a time.

“We have to take advantage of the opportunities we have and stay focused on that,” she said. “We have to focus on the little things, but while also seeing the bigger picture. Our goal is to get to the Finals and put ourselves in the best position to win a championship.”

After a post-Olympic break slump, Los Angeles looks like they did earlier in the season. Ogwumike said it’s all about poise. And she said the Sparks are still figuring things out.

“I think staying poised has been a focus of our team this year and when we do that, we really exude what we’re good at,” Ogwumike said. “The ball moves, we move, we love getting set in our defense and guarding people. But I also think the hard work we put in has also reflected in the individual awards in the team, and I don’t see anything else but progress from here.”

“We’re still learning. It’s playoffs and we’re still learning about each other and learning about what we need to do and how we need to do it. Also, coach is doing a good job of putting us in a good position.”

Parker acknowledged Los Angeles has had a bit of a chip on their shoulders this season.

“I don’t think that there’s anything to prove but that we could get to the Finals and that we will win the championship,” she said. “That’s the only thing, and that’s been our focus all year.”

“I think our team has played as such, and we took offense to how we were eighth in coach’s poll of how we would finish. This season we talked about the poll and took offense to that, so we battled through adversity after the Olympic break when we weren’t playing as well as we wanted to play. But, I think this whole team has played that way and that’s the way you have to play when you want to put yourself in a position to win a championship.”

The Sparks head to Chicago for a 3 p.m. Eastern showdown on ESPN.