Over the years, the Sparks have become quite familiar with watching Chelsea Gray take over in the fourth quarter of games, delivering her teams wins down the stretch.
It had to be a strange feeling to watch Gray perform the same feat in a different uniform against Los Angeles. But that’s precisely what the All-Star point guard — headed to her first Olympics this month — did Friday.
After the Sparks took a 55-54 lead in the fourth quarter with 5:33 to play, their first lead since 3-2 in the first, Gray took control. She made a pull-up jumper to tie the game, zipped a pass to A’ja Wilson to earn two free throws, then made another short jumper in semi-transition. Gray followed that up with another beautiful pass to fellow former Spark Riquna Williams in the left corner, whose three gave Las Vegas a five-point advantage it would not relinquish as the Sparks lost 66-58.
Erica Wheeler led L.A. with 15 points, 11 of those coming in the third quarter as L.A. rallied from a double-digit deficit. Two other Sparks scored in double figures, as it was another offensive struggle for the home team.
Los Angeles shot 22-of-62 from the field, with only Te’a Cooper able to find her shot early against the Vegas defense. That seemed to be by design, as the majority of Cooper’s looks were from distance. The Sparks weren’t doing much aside from trying to blow by their defenders to get into the paint, and they had difficulty finishing past Liz Cambage, Dearica Hamby, and A’ja Wilson. They shot 5-of-14 within the restricted area in the first half as they dug an eight-point hole.
It’s a shame L.A. didn’t try to incorporate more movement, because the Aces were conceding switches easily in the halfcourt, which allowed the Sparks to get mismatches fairly easily. Once the Sparks got some motion later in the game, that led to some easier opportunities.
Fortunately, as it has for most of the season, the team’s defense was up to the challenge of keeping the Sparks in the game. L.A. applied heavy ball pressure and fronted to avoid getting the ball into the Vegas posts as much as possible. When the Aces tried to drive to the basket, Nia Coffey did a phenomenal job in help defense. She had four blocks, each more violent than the last, in addition to two steals, as she defended nearly every position on the court.
"Nah." - Nia Coffey, probably.@Niacoff | #RootedInLA pic.twitter.com/lCn6P74fcz— Los Angeles Sparks (@LASparks) July 3, 2021
That defensive effort, combined with Wheeler’s third-quarter burst, gave the Sparks a chance to be in the game late. But once the Aces locked in on defense, the offense was hard to find again. Hamby took the Wheeler assignment herself to get the ball out her hands, the rest of the Sparks couldn’t make Vegas pay as they missed a series of jumpers.
To be competitive in the fourth after being routed Wednesday was an improvement, but Derek Fisher made it clear that the team wasn’t interested in moral victories. Unfortunately, those are the only wins the Sparks have had in the last three games as they fall to 6-10 with the defending champions coming to Los Angeles Sunday.