The Los Angeles Sparks paid homage to 25 WNBA seasons on Sunday in a game against the New York Liberty, a rematch of the league’s inaugural game on June 21, 1997.
But just as they did in that first game, the Sparks fell short, losing 76-73.
L.A. was doomed by a slow start on offense, as they fell behind by 14 points and trailed 44-36 at halftime. They erased the deficit in the second half, but didn’t have the firepower to come out on top.
Coach Derek Fisher made a sizable halftime move, injecting Karlie Samuelson — who didn’t play in the first half — into the starting lineup after Bria Holmes suffered a minor injury. Samuelson played all 20 second-half minutes as the Sparks went with a small lineup of Erica Wheeler, Kristi Toliver, Brittney Sykes, Samuelson, and Nia Coffey.
It worked, as L.A. tied the game after three quarters, and the teams went back and forth in the final frame. The smaller lineup brought more spacing to the floor, but Fisher said that wasn’t the motivation. “More than the size of the players, it was really more about getting a group of players on the court that were gonna play with just passion and freedom,” Fisher said after the game. “What we were doing to that point wasn’t working.”
Wheeler in particular shined, using the spaced floor to get to the rim and find good looks. Just a few days after posting her first career double-double, Wheeler grabbed her second, with 20 points and 10 assists on 9-for-15 shooting.
But the rest of the offense struggled to find its footing, with the Sparks shooting just 6-for-24 from beyond the arc, and only getting to the free throw line 10 times — half as many as the Liberty. Even so, there were good signs from an offense that has had a lot of bad days at the office in recent weeks. Once the floor became spaced, L.A. managed to got a fair amount of good looks. “We didn’t convert on the opportunities we had,” Fisher said. “Not that the opportunities weren’t there, we just didn’t take advantage.”
That failure to take advantage spoiled a strong defensive performance. The Sparks did a good job holding New York’s stars in check, as Betnijah Laney had 14 points and Sabrina Ionescu 9. Even more impressively, L.A. forced 30 turnovers, continuing a season-long trend of disruptive defense.
The glass half empty view of that is that the Sparks allowed 76 points despite those 30 turnovers. “Teams are still scoring points that can come off the board,” said Fisher. “Yeah, let’s continue to force turnovers, but we can eliminate 8, 10, 12 points with two players just talking to each other.”
While there’s room for improvement on that front, Fisher did conclude that “the defense is doing a pretty damn good job. It’s the only reason we’re in some of these games.”
It was the reason they were in the game Sunday, but when the game was on the line it was the offense that needed to step up. Instead, with the Sparks trailing by three and a few seconds left, Wheeler’s game-tying attempt was blocked by Rebecca Allen, who led the Liberty with 19 points. L.A. grabbed the offensive rebound and Nia Coffey got a clean look from deep, but her shot rattled out at the buzzer.
If the Sparks, who are now 5-7, want to make a push, they’ll need to find some shots to match the defense.