Los Angeles – In a three-year series that had seen the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx score on each other with a total differential of under five points, Sunday’s 77-69 Sparks win was a departure from the norm.
Led by 19 points and 10 rebounds from Candace Parker, in her return to the starting lineup after sitting out with a back injury, Los Angeles kept defending champion Minnesota on their heels much of the game. By halftime the hosts had forced their opponents into 13 turnovers, scoring on almost every one of them.
In the third quarter the Sparks surged and turned what had been a close game into a more one-sided affair. Alana Beard iced a 16-footer at the 7:28 mark, and Los Angeles made the next six shots while keeping the Lynx from scoring a field goal for the rest of the period.
The fourth quarter was much the same, with the Sparks padding their lead to as much as 12 points four times on the strength of balanced scoring and lockdown defense. Minnesota, which shot only 60 percent from the free throw line, missed four in the final frame.
What has so often ended with a game-winning shot by either team came to a close with a whimper, as Lynx reserve Alexis Jones hit a three-point shot with 20 seconds remaining, which proved to be the last bucket of the game.
The loss was Minnesota’s fourth – the first time they have had such a stretch since the 2010 season. They are 2-5, tenth in league standings.
Chelsea Gray added 15 points for Los Angeles, while Nneka Ogwumike and Odyssey Sims each chipped in 12. Reigning defensive player of the year Alana Beard scored nine points, but ruled the day defending All-Star Maya Moore, whom she held scoreless in the first quarter. Moore ended with 18 points, but fought Beard for most of them, and shot an uncharacteristic 50 percent from the free throw line.
Sparks coach Brian Agler lauded his 14-year veteran.
“Alana Beard, she’s as good of a defender as I’ve been around,” Agler said. “She just makes it difficult on whoever she’s guarding.”
Sylvia Fowles added 14 points for the Lynx, which saw starting point guard Lindsay Whalen play only seven minutes and starting forward Rebekkah Brunson hit the floor for just 17, as coach Cheryl Reeve elected to play reserve Danielle Robinson, who ended with 12 points, and Jones, who scored 10, for 24-plus minutes a piece.
Reeve said she is looking out for her veterans, who have helped the team win four WNBA championships since 2011.
“We’re managing the health of our players a little bit, so we thought we’d take better care of them,” she said. “In the case of Brunson, I haven’t been good to her, and I can’t play her 35 minutes like I’ve been playing her. So I wanted to be more responsible; I wanted to see what we could get off our bench. And we moved Maya to the four a little bit. I loved what we did today.”
Despite the loss, Reeve was pleased with the performances of her reserves.
“I loved the overall team contribution,” she said. “We have players on the bench who can play, and they deserve opportunities. You have to be responsible – it’s a long season. That’s the place we’re in, whereas LA can still play people for 35 minutes.”
Parker played in Los Angeles’ home win over Phoenix the previous Sunday, but had come in off the bench to score ten points. Against the Lynx, she didn’t miss a beat, and got out to 17 quick first-half points.
“I feel a lot better,” Parker said. “I was able to practice for a week. It’s a world of difference between this week and last week, the way I feel and the way I can move, but it’s progress in the right direction.”
Also back was eighth-year forward Jantel Lavender, who returned from overseas Friday. She only played three minutes against Minnesota, but will rejoin the regular rotation, as did Parker, Agler said.
The Sparks’ roster has remained largely unchanged from last year, when they lost to Minnesota in the WNBA Finals. The Lynx, by contrast, gained two new players and lost key reserve Renee Montgomery. Even so, their plummet to the bottom of the league standings has been a shock to many.
Moore, who has won 16 championships in her last 11 years of play at all three levels, had a heavy countenance after the game against Los Angeles.
“I don’t like losing,” she said. “I don’t like losing this year more than I ever have.”
Still, she admitted her team “have some things to work on.”
“We’re trying to ensure that we’re continuing to get on the same page with our new players,” Moore said. “(Today) I thought we made some progress. I like the energy of…..that second group, and there were some great things we saw from our players today.”
“We didn’t execute our defensive game plan at a high enough level to keep them from scoring. It’s never fun to walk away with a loss, but I thought we got some good experience from our bench players today.”
Moore acknowledged that years of being the “hunted” team has been challenging.
“There is something to having achieved so much hard-fought success and doing it again, when everyone wants to seize you as their championship game,” Moore said. “That’s something we will continue to embrace and continue to fight. It’s going to make us stronger if we let it.”
The road gets no easier for Minnesota, as they continue on the road to face the Washington Mystics Thursday and the undefeated Connecticut Sun Saturday.
The Sparks host the 4-2 Seattle Storm Thursday and the Chicago Sky Saturday.
Sue Favor co-authored this report.