Nneka Ogwumike (illness) missed her second straight game and did not travel with the team. Alana Beard (strained groin) also did not play, but per the broadcast, she was on the court warming up before the game.
Stefanie Dolson struck first out of the break for the Sky to tie the game at 40. The Sparks extended their lead with a 9-0 run to force a Chicago timeout two and a half minutes into the period. Essence Carson ignited the run by drilling a tough step-back three late in the clock, then a Candace Parker steal led to a run out for Jantel Lavender. Parker struck again, pulling down a defensive rebound the next time down. The newly minted 2018 All-Star team captain drove the length of the floor and was fouled.
Nothing went right for Chicago during this short stretch at the start of the third. Odyssey Sims stole the ensuing inbounds pass after Parker sunk both free throws. Chelsea Gray got to the rim and scored later in that possession to cap the 9-0 run for LA.
Looking at things from Chicago’s perspective, it must have been frustrating to see things turn so quickly coming out of the break after a solid first half. Dolson’s jumper was falling early, and the Sky got both Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley touches on the move going towards the rim with some of their favorite screening actions.
Defensively, the Sky set the matchups to allow them to switch Gray-Parker pick and rolls. Diamond DeShields drew the primary assignment on Gray, and Gabby Williams started on Parker. (This strategy is worth keeping tabs on. The Phoenix Mercury had some success early in the season doing the same thing with DeWanna Bonner and Sancho Lyttle. Brittney Griner even switched onto Gray in pick and rolls involving her assignment.)
That one chess move alone was not going to completely stump the Sparks. But executing those switches eliminates one source of dribble penetration for Gray in particular, who has become one of the toughest covers in the WNBA.
Chicago’s relative success with that strategy also shines a light on Ogwumike’s place within LA’s offense. She is a devastating roller and cutter, and is a tremendous finisher around the rim. According to Swanny’s Stats, Ogwumike is shooting nearly 70 percent inside five feet in 2018. Head coach Brian Agler could be heard imploring his bigs to roll Sunday afternoon with his team lacking Ogwumike’s ability to do just that.
The Sky also sent doubles at Parker in the post and were willing to put themselves into rotation as the tradeoff. Chicago’s perimeter defenders got the job done for the most part, flying around the court to execute close outs on the perimeter as Dolson held things down inside.
In the first half alone, though, LA had shown that this game was going to be different from Friday’s loss to the Fever on the offensive end. The Sparks connected on 5-of-12 three-pointers in the first half in Chicago after shooting just 4-of-18 from deep as a team against the Fever.
As the game wore on, the Sparks didn’t force-feed the aforementioned actions the Sky were loading up to stop. The ball moved from side-to-side, and Parker and Gray got plenty of help from the supporting cast.
Carson scored 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting (3-6 3PT). Perhaps more importantly, she prevented Sky All-Star shooting guard Allie Quigley, one of the most prolific shooters in the league, from getting loose on the perimeter. Quigley shot 2-of-10 for the game and got up just two three-point attempts. (Through Sunday’s action, Quigley is shooting over 43 percent on upwards of five three-point attempts per game for the second consecutive season.)
The Sparks have posted the third-best defensive rating (98.6 points allowed per 100 possessions via WNBA.com) in the league after finishing second in each of the past two seasons. They locked in on Chicago’s top scoring options from the perimeter — Quigley, Vandersloot and DeShields — throughout Sunday’s game.
As a result, Kahleah Copper and Cheyenne Parker found themselves open at times to fire away from the outside, combining to hit 4-of-8 from beyond the arc. LA’s approach won out as they continued to move the ball and shoot with confidence.
Lavender, starting in Ogwumike’s place once again, finished with 14 points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block in 33 minutes. Sims started for Beard and scored 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting.
Though the Sparks were likely heavy favorites to hang on for a win by this point in the fourth quarter, Sims managed to make another key defensive play in the backcourt that led directly to another LA bucket. Chicago got a stop with about 2:40 to play trailing by 11. Sims got a hand on the ball, sending it right into the hands of Lavender for an easy lay in.
Ogwumike’s absence has cleared the way for Maria Vadeeva to get some more run as well. There aren’t many frontcourt reserves out there that can draw a defender out, put it down twice and finish at the rim:
The Sparks want Ogwumike and Beard back on the floor as soon as possible to be sure, but a silver lining from Sunday’s game has to be the play of Sims and Lavender. No matter the matchup in the postseason, both will need to be key cogs in the rotation for Agler.
With the completion of Sunday’s slate of games, the Sparks find themselves tied for second place with the Phoenix Mercury at 15-10 behind the Atlanta Dream and the first place Seattle Storm. The Sparks host the Dream Tuesday night (10:30 PM ET, live on Twitter) in their final game before the All-Star break.
Note: Sims did leave the court hobbling after appearing to roll her left ankle as she landed after laying the ball in with 1:16 to play. As of the publishing of this post, there has not yet been an update on her status.