Under-the-radar defending champ Sparks looking better than ever on playoffs eve

Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray, Riquna Williams and Alana Beard speak at a timeout. Photo by Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.
Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray, Riquna Williams and Alana Beard speak at a timeout. Photo by Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.

There was plenty of roller coaster riding in the last half of the WNBA’s regular-season.

Teams like the Seattle Storm and the Chicago Sky figured out how to play together after rough starts; the New York Liberty went on a ten-game winning streak, and the Atlanta Dream dropped nine in a row.

But one team quietly amassed the best post-All-Star game record, won or tied the season series with every other team in the league this season, and carries a steely, cohesive momentum into the playoffs that underscores their depth and maturity.

Yet, the defending WNBA Champion Los Angeles Sparks are still somehow under the radar, as they were entering the postseason last year when the Minnesota Lynx were overwhelmingly picked to repeat. All eyes this season have been on the Lynx, who began 2017 vowing to avenge their Finals loss and reclaim a title they’ve won three out of the last six years. But as the pressure on Minnesota mounted as they struggled through August, the Sparks came together and finished on a seven-game winning streak.

Their efforts, however, are downplayed.

“It’s funny because everybody thinks we had such an amazing season last year, but it’s come together this year,” All-Star forward Candace Parker said. “Going into playoffs we have more momentum and we’re playing better as opposed to last year, when we were wondering what we were going to get, because we dropped so many (games) after All-Star break.”

Los Angeles has the same regular-season record this year as they did in 2016: 26-8. But the difference between those two paths is night and day.

Last season the Sparks began by rattling off 11 straight wins before losing to Minnesota. Los Angeles dropped two games in a row just before the Olympic break, and after they returned, they lost five of their next eight match ups. They came together to win their last two games before playoffs began.

This season the Sparks had two new guards in Riquna Williams and Odyssey Sims, as well as a new cast of reserve players. Team members learned how to work together on the fly, and they rode and eight-game winning streak through most of June. The Sparks had lost six games going into All-Star break.

They came back and went on a four-game winning run. They are 12-2 since the break, and have won the season series with every team except Dallas, with whom they tied. There have been times when Los Angeles has straight-out dominated, as they did in a mid-August rout of the Washington Mystics. In other instances, like the double-overtime win over the Chicago Sky two nights later, team members have shown the patience that comes with experience.

Individually, Sparks players are shining, as well.

Two-time league MVP Parker, who is averaging 16.9 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, has been playing with particular passion and energy in the second half of the year. Less than one week after the All-Star game, she became only the sixth player in league history to notch a triple-double. She has had 11 double-doubles this season and was named WNBA player of the month for August.

Parker and reigning MVP Nneka Ogwumike, who averages 18.8 and 7.7 rebounds per outing, have complimentary playing styles that make them nightmares to guard. Parker dishes assists like a guard and can hit long-range shots, while Ogwumike bangs in the paint and can create her own scoring opportunities.

“They very much compliment each other,” coach Brian Agler said. “Candace is a natural face-up player, natural guard, and she thinks the game as a point guard. She handles the ball well. Her greatest strength is the ability to distribute the ball, and her passing ability.”

“Nneka can finish and move without the ball. It’s a good combination.”

Guard Chelsea Gray this season has picked up where she left off in last year’s playoffs, when she brought energy from the bench to inspire run after run for Los Angeles. This season she is part of the starting lineup, and averages 14.8 points and a team-high 4.4 assists per game. She averages 33.1 minutes per game – more than any of her teammates.

Veteran Alana Beard has upped her already-intense defensive play, averaging 2.1 steals per game this year and suffocating opponents with her relentlessness. Against Minnesota last month, it was Beard who kept former MVP Maya Moore from scoring until midway through the second quarter, and she helped limit her to ten points overall. In their regular-season finale against the Sun, Beard jumped up against 6-6 Jonquel Jones to get a hand over her head as she tried to score. Beard is a candidate for WNBA defensive player of the year.

Despite missing time due to injury, both Sims and Williams have filled a longtime void in the back court for the Sparks.

Sims – acquired from Dallas last winter – was out the first three games of the season, but she quickly worked her way into the starting lineup after that, and she has been electric. Her fearless, slashing style helps pace the team, and has made her the fourth-best scorer with a 9.6 point average. Two weeks ago she scored a career-high 28 points against the Phoenix Mercury.

“Odyssey’s insurgence has given us a shot of energy,” Agler said.

Williams, who missed last season after tearing her ACL, has been out 11 games this year with knee issues. But her motor is like Sims’, and her speed and ability to change gears in transition is exceptional. Having both guards on the floor at the same time has provided a balance for the front court presence of Parker and Ogwumike.

“Adding Riquna and Odyssey to the back court has been unbelievable,” forward Jantel Lavender said. “We didn’t have that slashing to the basket last year.”

The ever-reliable Lavender, who has never missed a game for the franchise and who has been able to step into any role asked of her, greatly adds to the depth of the team – especially with her paint presence and defense. Essence Carson, acquired last year when Williams went out for the season, also bring a lot of energy off the bench, as does rookie Sydney Wiese.

Last year Los Angeles played only seven players consistently, all the way through to the title game. Beard said the Sparks are not only deeper in 2017, but wiser.

“The cool thing about this team is we’re extremely balanced; we don’t get too high or too low,” Beard said. “That has come with experience, and last year taught us a lot going into this year.”

“The team is different, so it’s our job to relay the message to the new players about what it takes to win. Everyone has done a great job of learning, and it’s been a cool process.”

Agler said Los Angeles benefits from having several great players on the floor who are willing to share leadership duties and on-court responsibilities.

Riquna Williams, Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Chelsea Gray, Jantel Lavender and Alana Beard celebrate their early0-season win over the Phoenix Mercury. Photo by Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.
Riquna Williams, Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Chelsea Gray, Jantel Lavender and Alana Beard celebrate their early0-season win over the Phoenix Mercury. Photo by Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.

“We have star players, and star players shine in big moments,” he said. “The greatest quality we have on our team is we have tremendous internal leadership. All of our core people play a part in that. They are all leaders in their own right. You need people driving and pushing each other.”

Parker explained her increased intensity the last half of the season by saying, “I just feel good.”

“I love our defensive effort, I love our presence,” she said of the team. “We’re very challenging when we’re focused defensively. We’re very athletic at every position.”

Ogwumike said this year’s squad is markedly better than last year’s. That, and what they learned winning the Championship, is how they’ve been able to win so consistently of late.

“It’s been a major improvement. We’ve had a lot of additions,” Ogwumike said. “We have a different type of experience that contributes to our cohesive play right now.”

Yet, not only are the Sparks underrated with fans, but the team is downplaying themselves, and are sticking with the “one-game-at-a-time” mantra that worked for them last season.

“We’ve shown a lot of amazing glimpses of what we can do that’s better than last year,” Lavender said. “We’re being really selfless, and we’re getting the ball to the right places at the right times. It’s feeling good. We’re starting to play like we need to play to go far into the playoffs. It feels like we’re in control.”

After byes in rounds one and two of the playoffs, Los Angeles will play the winner of the Mercury-Sun game on Tuesday.