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Sparks bested by MVP-level finish from Breanna Stewart in 71-62 loss

L.A. was right there with the defending champs until the reigning Finals MVP took over.

Seattle Storm v Los Angeles Sparks Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

The Sparks played the Storm tight on Tuesday, leading the team with the best record in the league through three quarters before ultimately falling behind in the fourth. But with the defending champs returning home and welcoming back Jewell Loyd to the lineup, Seattle had extra advantages in its favor in the rematch.

Despite that home cooking, the Sparks played nearly even with the Storm for the first 38 minutes. Over the final two, Breanna Stewart showed why she’s the best player in the world, scoring eight points to help Seattle close out the 71-62 victory.

The pace was to Los Angeles’ liking, as the Sparks successfully mucked up the game. They pressured the Storm’s offense, getting into their airspace and forcing the home team to respond to their physicality. For stretches, Seattle was up to the challenge, but overall, the flow of the game was in the Sparks’ favor.

L.A. forced 19 turnovers — leading to 22 points — compared to only 11 assists for the Storm, whose previous season-low was 16. The Sparks limited their opponents to 23 field goals, nine below Seattle’s season average. The lone problem on defense was that L.A. surrendered 14 offensive rebounds, which resulted in 17 second-chance points. The Storm entered the game as the worst offensive-rebounding team in the league, but the Sparks’ league-worst defensive rebounding percentage was the difference.

Despite the loss, there were multiple positive takeaways. The team’s overall defense was outstanding, highlighted by Nia Coffey’s individual effort. She was tasked as Stewart’s primary defender, but was active in help throughout, and had two steals and a block, helping the Sparks get out in transition.

Arella Guirantes also had her best game as a pro, as one of two L.A. players with a positive plus-minus. She was more composed than usual on the offensive end, even though she continues to struggle with clock management at times, and she made some nice reads in the half court.

“The reason why Arella’s performance stood out is not really because she scored two baskets,” head coach Derek Fisher said postgame. “It was her toughness, her defense, her activity, the way she was communicating with her teammates on the defensive end. She didn’t force offensive plays trying to prove that she can score, and she just allowed the game to come to her.”

Fisher told Guirantes at halftime that she had just played her best 10 minutes, and the rookie with responded with an even better effort in the second half. Guirantes was a pest on none other than Sue Bird down the stretch, not allowing Seattle to get into its sets. Her jumper got the Sparks within one with 2:04 to play, though the team would never again be within one possession.

Erica Wheeler once again carried the scoring load for L.A. She had 22 points, the lone Spark in double figures, as she shot 8-of-13 from the field. Were it not for Stewart’s heroics, the story of the game would be how Wheeler put the team on her back to carry them in the second half.

Alas, the Storm had their MVP, and the Sparks didn’t. But their ability to put up a fight against the top team in the WNBA despite being so shorthanded gives Wheeler confidence that the Sparks can turn this around once they get better health.

“You gotta understand, man we are in games and like literally, maybe down 10 or maybe down five with three of our key players that’s out,” Wheeler said postgame. “Chiney is out, Nneka’s out, and KT, and we still giving teams hell, so for me it’s more so like when my players get back and my teammates get back, it’s gonna be a different ballgame.”

The Sparks are currently 6-12, 11th place in the WNBA standings. They are two games back of the final playoff spot with one contest remaining before the Olympic break.