Los Angeles — The Los Angeles Sparks defeated the Phoenix Mercury 78-75 Sunday afternoon at Staples Center. Candace Parker became the 20th player in WNBA history to score 5,000 career points in the win, while Chelsea Gray served as the closer, scoring 12 of her game-high 24 points in the fourth quarter.
“They were going under drastically on screens with her (Gray), and that’s her sweet spot,” Sparks forward Jantel Lavender said postgame. “If teams are going to do that, we say, ‘Keep shooting the ball.’ That’s what she did tonight and came up huge for us.”
L.A. led by as many as 17 in the first half as Mercury star Diana Taurasi racked up four fouls and went scoreless in 11 minutes. A 5-0 spurt by Nneka Ogwumike immediately extended the Sparks’ 10-point lead coming out of the break.
To make their comeback, the Mercury connected on 7-of-15 second half three-pointers after starting out 1-of-12. Taurasi broke through at the 2:48 mark in the third for her first bucket, pulling her team within four and forcing Sparks coach Brian Agler to call a timeout.
Gray responded — as she did throughout the second half to lead the Sparks to victory — by drilling a tough contested jumper late in the shot clock. Phoenix extended the ensuing possession with two offensive rebounds but failed to get a shot up before the shot clock expired. Then, after Taurasi’s 3-pointer off the dribble, DeWanna Bonner missed a fastbreak layup in the closing seconds of the third that could have brought the Mercury within four. Bonner laid at midcourt after the horn, visibly frustrated at the missed opportunity.
Phoenix continued its push to start the fourth — Briann January knocked down a three-pointer 90 seconds into the period after missing seven of her first eight shots, cutting the Sparks lead to one. Gray came back down and hit another pull-up jumper, the Sparks got a stop, and Gray found a cutting Riquna Williams for an easy layup.
Then it was Taurasi’s turn for a personal 5-0 spurt. The longer the Mercury continued to hang around, the less the slow start seemed to matter to the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer until eventually the Mercury had made it a one possession game with less than seven minutes to play.
Parker answered by earning a trip to the line, and Gray pulled up to nail two more jumpers.
“Those consistent shots just kept us within the game,” Lavender said. “It was great and I’m really happy for her. (Gray) played extremely well tonight.”
One could argue that Gray’s biggest play of the game came on the other end of the court. As Taurasi drove toward the baseline, Gray stepped up and took a charge with 2:40 to play, fouling Taurasi out of the game.
“[Gray] was big all game. She’s been big all season. I call her ‘Clutchie’ for a reason,” Sparks guard Alana Beard said. “She hits big-time shots; she’s not afraid of that moment. But most importantly, she makes everyone else around her better.
“That’s what I love seeing about her. So I just hope that she continues to play at a high level and continues to get better because she will be mentioned also in the same sentences as Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi.”
A clutch three from Leilani Mitchell about a minute later brought the Mercury within two coming out of a timeout. The teams traded stops before Agler used another timeout, setting the stage for Gray. The All-Star guard used a ball screen to get to the left elbow before picking up her dribble. Gray pumped, spun toward the Mercury bench, stepped through and rose up over January to put her team back up by four.
The Mercury still managed to get a chance to tie. Odyssey Sims fouled Bonner on a 3-point attempt on the following possession. Bonner hit all three free throws, then Gray was fouled and sunk a pair with 12 seconds on the clock. Down three, Bonner’s three-point attempt missed just short on what would be the final possession for the Mercury.
The Sparks (17-11) have taken care of business at home with two wins coming out of the All-Star break. They will now hit the road for a week-long trip including a back-to-back against the New York Liberty and the second place Atlanta Dream before taking on the Mercury in Phoenix for the third and final meeting between the two teams of the regular season.