Two days after an impressive victory, the Los Angeles Sparks ran it back against the Phoenix Mercury with much worse results, losing 80-66.
From the opening tip, the Sparks couldn’t find any rhythm on offense. They were stagnant, often relying on isolations with no second option when the play didn’t work. After perhaps their best offensive performance of the season on Wednesday, L.A. didn’t have a single quarter in which they hit the 20-point mark on Friday.
The difference was stark. The Sparks were the hunter on Wednesday, and the prey to the same team on Friday. “There wasn’t a burst to what we were doing offensively,” coach Derek Fisher said after the game. “We had some decent opportunities, but we just didn’t meet the level and energy and force that this game was gonna acquire ... we were playing, but we weren’t going at them.”
Erica Wheeler, who had 17 points and 2 assists after 18 points and 10 assists on Wednesday, put it more bluntly: “Energy level. I think we were a step behind ... they definitely wanted it more. You could tell by their pace. They definitely wanted it more than us.”
The struggle manifested on the other end of the court in the second quarter, after center Amanda Zahui B. ran into foul trouble. After playing the entire first half on Wednesday, Zahui B. was held to seven first half minutes due to foul trouble, and fouled out of the game after just 19 minutes of action.
With the anchor of their defense sidelined, the Sparks struggled to contain the pick and roll of Skylar Diggins-Smith (21 points and 4 assists) and Brittney Griner (14 points and 8 rebounds). Phoenix exploded for 27 points in the second quarter to take an eight-point lead into the half.
From there the deficit only grew for L.A. The Sparks mustered just 13 third-quarter points, and in the fourth quarter the frustration started to show. There were stretches where the Sparks fouled on every possession, and you could see them get upset. Fisher picked up a technical foul arguing a non-call, but after the game shouldered the blame for the struggles, saying “Phoenix created that type of environment tonight. They were the type of team that brought the force and intensity and competitive spirit to the game. That’s what happens when you let the other team set the tone first. In those situations the officials are going to react to the aggressor a lot of times. ... we didn’t have much rhythm. We allowed ourselves to get frustrated mentally, emotionally.”
The doubleheader against Phoenix has been the story of the Sparks season: encouraging wins, followed by frustrating losses where things look quite a ways off. But that happens when you’re just 11 games into a season, with your starting frontcourt (Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike) injured, and a bunch of new faces.
The Sparks are now 5-6, and host the New York Liberty, led by Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney on Sunday.