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Sparks struggle to contain Mystics, lose 89-71

Los Angeles couldn’t keep Tina Charles and Ariel Atkins at bay.

Los Angeles Sparks v Washington Mystics Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

After a two-game home stand in which the defense was firing on all cylinders — and perhaps a few extra ones, as well — the Los Angeles Sparks hit the road, and were met with a rude awakening from the Washington Mystics.

The Mystics may be without Elena Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman, but they still have Tina Charles controlling the middle. And the former MVP is making is making a strong case for her second trophy, leading the league in scoring by a comfortable margin.

Between Charles (20 points), Ariel Atkins (23 points), and highly-disciplined execution, the Mystics hung a big number on the Sparks, winning 89-71.

Asked after the game as to why the Sparks defense took a big step backwards, coach Derek Fisher laughed and offered a reason: “I think the fact that we spent the last two or three days talking about how great the defense was.”

From the start the Sparks defense didn’t have it, though they were dealt a tough hand: with their starting frontcourt of Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike sidelined, L.A.’s primary defender on Charles was Amanda Zahui B.

Zahui B. has played exceptional defense this year, but quickly found herself in foul trouble against an aggressive Mystics team that relentlessly attacked the paint. Between the fouls and the non-competitive fourth quarter, Zahui B. played fewer than 16 minutes.

With his starting center on the bench, Fisher had to turn to Kristine Anigwe, who was playing her first game of the season for L.A. Anigwe was signed using a hardship exception after the Ogwumikes were injured, so the Sparks were pretty deep into their bench at this point, using a player who had initially been cut in training camp to defend a superstar.

Anigwe did OK against Charles (though she fouled out), but at this point the Sparks were mismatched, and there was no going back.

It didn’t help that the Sparks couldn’t find any rhythm on offense. The high pick-and-roll, three-point hoisting, perimeter-centric attack that defined their last two games was missing, as the offense found itself hoisting contested shots in traffic rather than open jumpers and layups. Te’a Cooper led the way with 11 points, but needed 14 shots and six free throw attempts to get there, and had her shot blocked four times. Brittney Sykes was the only other Spark in double figures, with 10 points on 3-for-8 shooting. As a team, the Sparks shot just 32.8% from the field. They weren’t cold; they just couldn’t work open shots.

No rhythm on offense and no resistance on defense is rarely a successful equation. It felt like it was over when Washington jumped out to a 16-6 lead and, indeed, it never was close after that.

The Sparks fall to 4-4, but there’s some consolation: they get to play again on Saturday, when they visit the Minnesota Lynx. At the start of the season the Sparks were playing just once a week, giving them perhaps too much time to dwell on their losses. Playing again so soon “forces you to have a short-term memory,” said Sykes.

In this case, that’s a good thing.