The Los Angeles Sparks were shorthanded on Thursday, but you wouldn’t have known it from the result. Despite getting bad injury news about both Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike before the contest, and thus only having eight players, the Sparks put forth their best performance of the season, besting the Indiana Fever 98-63.
Maybe it was the fact that the Sparks were motivated by the first taste of their home fans this year, which was on display when they greeted the crowd before and after the game. Maybe it was playing a Fever team that now has just one win in 10 games.
Or maybe it was the fact that L.A., down to just one center — and a stretch five at that in Amanda Zahui B. — was forced to play small and spread the court.
In reality, it was likely all three. The Sparks played small by necessity against one of the league’s biggest teams, and made a living breaking down Indy from the perimeter. It was rare that a foot was in the paint except when a player was driving or cutting, and there may not have been a single post-up called.
Instead, L.A. spread five players across the perimeter, ran a series of high pick and pops, and lived on a healthy dose of open threes and drives to the hoop.
After shooting better than 40% from the field just once in their first five games, the Sparks dropped in 56.1% of their shots, including a slick 14-for-28 from distance. It was the cleanest offensive display of the season for L.A., with the ball moving and finding frequent open looks.
The Sparks, knowing that they’ll have to adjust for at least another month of play without Nneka Ogwumike, banked on the gameplan providing stronger looks. “Indiana was obviously a much bigger team,” coach Derek Fisher said. “We knew we had to try to the best of our abilities to spread them out, draw [Teaira] McCowan away from the hoop ... I think tonight, just due to the personnel that we had, and the fact that we need to play that way now, there were more gaps to drive into.”
It showed. Bria Holmes shot 6-for-9, providing a spark off the bench after starting the season 3-for-26 from the field. Te’a Cooper shot 5-for-8 and worked her way to the free throw line 5 times. Erica Wheeler shot 5-for-9.
But the star was Kristi Toliver, playing as a Spark in front of the L.A. crowd for the first time since 2016. Toliver scored a season-high 22 points, and needed just 12 shots to get there. More than anyone else, she seemed to benefit from the added space of the Sparks shooter-heavy lineups. “I think when you have a heavy guard lineup, naturally spacing is created,” Toliver said after the game. “We were gonna have to be a little smaller, but we can also expose people that way.”
And expose them they did. While McCowan towered over L.A. in stature, she managed just 6 points and 5 rebounds. Former Spark Jantel Lavender, also substantially bigger than the Sparks, shot just 4-for-14. And no one could keep the Sparks players from getting open shots or getting to the rim at will.
L.A. will have to keep that up. Nneka Ogwumike is out until the Olympic break, and they won’t welcome Maria Vadeeva back until then, either. Jasmine Walker is out for the season. Chiney Ogwumike could return next week, but the Sparks will still be limited in both size and quantity of players.
Fisher sees some positives in that, saying that as the team suffered injuries there’s been “a look in everybody’s eye that they know they’re gonna play, and they know they have to do their job ... I think there’s pressure and that accountability that ‘I can’t be the weak link tonight.’”
Next up for the Sparks — who improved to 3-3 — is a Saturday home game against the Chicago Sky. L.A. beat Chicago twice on the road last weekend, but Nneka Ogwumike played in both of those games, and Candace Parker didn’t play in either for the Sky. If Parker returns from her ankle injury on Saturday, it will be to a raucous ovation at the Los Angeles Convention Center. And either way, it will be another test for the short-handed Sparks.