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Anatomy of a comeback: What we can learn from the Sparks rally against the Wings

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The Sparks were at their best in the fourth quarter against Dallas.

Dallas Wings v Los Angeles Sparks Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Sparks won their seventh game in a row on Sunday, matching the second-longest win streak in the league this season. It’s also L.A.’s lengthiest win streak since 2017, the last year the team made the WNBA Finals.

For the third straight game, the Sparks had to dig deep late to earn the win. They were down ten points with eight minutes remaining against a Dallas team that isn’t currently in position to make the playoffs, but one that has done well against L.A. over the past two seasons thanks to their head coach Brian Agler, who was at the helm of the Sparks from 2015 to 2018.

A contested runner from old friend Marina Mabrey (a second-round draft pick by L.A. last year) put the Wings up 73-63. From there, the Sparks scored 11 straight points, eventually taking the lead for good at 79-77 with 3:26 to play. That four and a half minute stretch was a good look at what exactly the team has done right on this winning streak, and why they’re so difficult to put away.

First, the Sparks put the ball in Chelsea Gray’s hands. Gray’s offensive impact has been muted in 2020 relative to 2019 given the team’s bevy of scoring options, but she’s still a maestro in the paint, and she hasn’t missed a free throw all year. On this possession, Gray uses a high screen from Nneka Ogwumike, beats her defender to the paint, and gets just outside the charge circle before drawing the foul. That’s two points.

Dallas Wings v Los Angeles Sparks
Chelsea Gray’s overall offensive output is down this season, but she’s still one of the most feared closers in the WNBA.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Wings give it to the league’s leading scorer, Arike Ogunbowale, on their next play, but no problem for the L.A — Brittney Sykes is ready to go. Sykes is 14th in the league in defensive win shares and a menace with her length and stride on the perimeter. Ever since Sykes entered the starting lineup, she’s been tasked with defending the opposing team’s best player, and right now, that means Ogunbowale. Sykes stays attached to Ogunbowale, even as the Dallas guard tries to lose her with a screen. She’s forced to give up the ball to Mabrey, who takes an ill-advised long three.

L.A. misses on offense, but Ogwumike steals the outlet. The Sparks are second in the league in steals with 10.2 per game, and they force the most turnovers per game at 19.5. On this one, Ogwumike feeds Sykes for the layup to get L.A. within six.

One more stop and two more Gray free throws later, and the Sparks are down four. On the ensuing possession, Ogunbowale gets the ball again, and this time she gets past Sykes to the rim, only to find that Candace Parker is waiting for her. Parker rejects the shot off of Ogunbowale, and it’s L.A. ball.

For all the deserved accolades Sykes and Ogwumike have gotten for their defense this season, Parker is the lynchpin of that unit for the Sparks. She leads the league in defensive rebounds, is eighth in blocks, and also checks in at eighth in win shares. A two-time MVP, Parker is now a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, and she says, “That might be above the two (trophies) I got at home, honestly.”

Parker splits two free throws on the next play and stands up Astou Ndour for another stop. That’s when the Sparks burn the Wings in transition yet again. L.A. runs selectively (6th out 12 teams in the league in pace), but the Sparks are deadly when they do, leading the league in fast-break points.

Then, Parker forces another miss at the rim, allowing Gray to leak out and drive past Mabrey for another two points in the paint. Gray is now shooting 76.0% at the basket this season, and this bucket gives the Sparks the lead for the first time in the second half.

The two teams trade baskets, and it’s at this point when the fifth Spark on the floor starts to make her presence felt. Te’a Cooper isn’t a guarantee to be playing in crunch time — it’s a minor miracle that she’s even on a roster after being cut by Phoenix after the draft — but Riquna Williams is injured, and head coach Derek Fisher has decided to prioritize Cooper’s defense over Sydney Wiese’s offense.

Cooper rewards that faith by drawing a charge on Kayla Thornton, the first of two charges the rookie will take in the final four minutes. After Dallas scores again, she responds by hitting a three to give L.A. a lead it would not relinquish.

Cooper has now drawn eight charges this season, second in the WNBA behind Sykes despite being 92nd in minutes. Her defensive prowess was known coming out of college, but if she can be a floor spacer (she’s only 3-of-13 on threes this season), then Cooper will have a more legitimate case for minutes at the end of games.

Fisher extols Cooper’s performance after the game, saying, “When she’s making the kind of plays she made tonight, those are the types of plays we need every night no matter who we’re playing against.”

That five-woman lineup of Parker, Ogwumike, Sykes, Cooper, and Gray features everything the Sparks do well: skill and tenacity on defense, speed yet composure in transition, seamless execution in the half court, and equanimity down the stretch when every possession matters.

After a few routs, the Sparks have gotten some crunch-time reps in recent games, and they’ve passed their first tests with flying colors. This is team that appears confident in its identity heading into the back half of the season.