Candace Parker didn’t really get a chance to make an impact in last year’s season-ending loss in the WNBA semifinals to the Connecticut Sun.
The entire 2020 season was Parker’s rebuttal to a disappointing 2019. And in the Sparks’ second-round playoff game against that very same opponent, Parker made her presence felt. As was the case for most of the Sparks season, Parker was the best player on the court for her team, setting the tone in every phase of the game with her passing, scoring, and defense.
The rest of the Sparks just couldn’t provide enough to help her out.
After a 15-7 regular season that felt like a team-wide redemption for last year’s postseason, the Sparks’ 2020 campaign once again came to an end against the Sun, as L.A. fell in the second round to Connecticut, 73-59.
The Sun went up 22-8 in the first quarter, buoyed by excellent transition play and timely jump-shooting from Briann January. The Sparks pulled to within six in the second quarter, but Connecticut ended the half on a 10-0 run and maintained a double-digit lead the rest of the game.
The Sun were technically the underdog as the no. 7 seed, but with no homecourt advantage in a single-elimination game, regular-season records were immaterial to the outcome. The Sparks were also without their second-best player, as Nneka Ogwumike was ruled out shortly before tip-off with a migraine.
Without Ogwumike, and with a hobbled Sydney Wiese in the lineup for the first time in 11 days, the Sparks didn’t have anywhere near the rotation they had used for the majority of the bubble season. That didn’t excuse the players who were on the court for not performing to their ability.
That list starts with Chelsea Gray. Gray struggled against the Sun in last year’s postseason, as they directed the bulk of their defensive energy towards her when she was L.A.’s primary ball-handler. She shot 10-of-33 from the field over three games for a total of 21 points, adding 13 assists. Gray should have had an easier time playing off the ball with Parker often running the offense, but she didn’t score or have an assist in the entire first half.
Jasmine Thomas is an excellent defender, but Parker was often matched up with Alyssa Thomas, a frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year, and Parker still ended the game with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and five assists. Gray, meanwhile, looked lifeless throughout, unable to get to the basket or create space on her jumper. She finished with four points on 2-of-9 shooting and had three turnovers compared to zero assists.
Seimone Augustus chipped in 10 points, but no one else on L.A. scored in double digits. The Sparks led the WNBA in 3-point shooting percentage this season and made only 2-of-18 shots from distance this game, cratering any hope of a comeback. Brittney Sykes and Kristine Anigwe provided some energy, Sykes with her slashing to the basket and Anigwe with her rebounding; they just couldn’t finish around the rim.
Connecticut, meanwhile, is rounding into form at the perfect time. The Sun finally have their preferred starting lineup of the two Thomases, January, Brionna Jones, and DeWanna Bonner healthy, and they are dominating with that group. It may have been a different story with Ogwumike available, but the Sun took advantage of their opportunity and earned a trip to the WNBA semifinals to face Las Vegas.
The Sparks are left to wonder what might have been had their health, which was a strength for so much of the season, not failed them in the last two weeks. They lost to a better team Thursday, and that defeat will sting through the offseason.