The Los Angeles Sparks returned home on Wednesday, but were dealt a tough hand with their matchups against the Phoenix Mercury. L.A. was once again without their starting frontcourt of Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike (knee injuries), while facing perhaps the most physically intimidating center in the league in Brittney Griner. And they were without Te’a Cooper (suspension), their primary on-ball perimeter defender against All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith.
But they found a way regardless, beating the Mercury 85-80.
The Sparks jumped out to a big lead early, as their offense started to click. The guards were aggressive but in control, taking care of the ball but finding high percentage shots.
More importantly, they looked comfortable. Time will do that, it seems.
“Things just take time to progress,” said Kristi Toliver, who finished with 17 points. “Everyone’s getting to their spots, and not having to force things. That’s easy offense ... it’s been a work in progress and it literally just takes time.”
That progress especially showed with Toliver’s backcourt mate Erica Wheeler, who recorded her first career double-double with 18 points and 10 assists, while committing just a single turnover. The Sparks, as a team, had just five.
Wheeler’s offense keyed a 53-43 lead at halftime, but most importantly, it slammed the door shut in the fourth quarter.
The Mercury erased a 14-point deficit, thanks in large part to a strong third quarter by Brittney Griner (who finished with 30 points and 10 rebounds) while Amanda Zahui B. was on the bench. Zahui B. played the entire first half — and then the entire fourth quarter — but sat for about five minutes in the third.
“She was starting to look a little fatigued in the third quarter,” said coach Derek Fisher. “Not making some of the plays that she’s capable of making ... as hard as it is guarding Brittney Griner defensively, and everything we ask her to do offensively ... she needed a little rest physically, and just a minute to collect herself.”
That time on the bench cost the Sparks the bulk of the lead, but it worked out. Zahui B. had the energy for strong defense and rebounding in the fourth quarter, and when the two teams were jockeying for a lead in the final minutes, Phoenix couldn’t find any buckets, but Wheeler certainly could, including the shot that iced the game.
ERICA WHEELER. LATE GAME. BIG TIME BUCKET OVER BG.#CountIt pic.twitter.com/4YgF4QjY3B— WNBA (@WNBA) June 17, 2021
The Sparks (5-5) are surviving, even with some of their best players sidelined.
“When our sisters are down, the first thing we wanna do is step up,” said Wheeler.
For one night, that’s exactly what they did. Now they get to try and repeat it on Friday against the same Mercury squad.