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Sparks turn on the jets in fourth in 85-80 win

This is the team’s 17th consecutive victory at Staples Center and second in a row.

Atlanta Dream v Los Angeles Sparks Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

The Sparks were in real danger of ending their 17-game Staples Center winning streak. The Dream had led for most of the night, and they had just capitalized on an L.A. clock management error to take a two-point lead with 4.7 seconds left.

If ever there was a moment for Kristi Toliver.

The veteran guard had struggled all night, not hitting a jump shot until the fourth quarter. But Toliver’s made a living off of hitting clutch shots dating back to her college days, and the Sparks put the ball in her hands to save their night. She made a move to the basket, met some resistance, and simply faded away for a jumper to tie the game at 74.

Once overtime started, L.A. didn’t mess around. The Sparks scored the first four points quickly and maintained the advantage en route to a 85-80 win. The victory brings L.A. to 8-13, one game back of the final playoff spot.

The Sparks needed their most dramatic rally of the season to be in position to win late. They trailed by eight early in the fourth quarter, but finally started to clean up their mistakes. They committed no turnovers in the final period and only conceded two Atlanta offensive rebounds, making the Dream work for their offense. That gave L.A. the runway it needed to come back, and the jump shots finally started to fall. The Sparks made three 3-pointers in the fourth quarter after two in the previous 30 minutes.

In addition to Toliver, Erica Wheeler gave the team a needed lift late. L.A.’s other clutch guard shot 3-of-4 in the fourth for seven points, hitting an array of tough looks as she has throughout the year.

It didn’t seem like the Sparks would be in position to win for most of the night. They really struggled in the half court early. Atlanta hedged on screen and rolls, pushing the L.A. guards further and further away from the basket, and cutting off their passing angles in the process because the Sparks backcourt is a little too short to complete passes over the top.

L.A. tried to counteract this would bounce passes on the roll, which Wheeler executed well with Amanda Zahui B. However, once Zahui B. left the game with foul trouble — she didn’t play the final 15 minutes of the first half — Wheeler and Lauren Cox didn’t have the same chemistry on the roll.

The Sparks needed to be able to make up the difference in transition points, but they executed surprisingly poorly on the break. Whether that was missing point-blank layups, throwing the ball away when sped up, or failing to take the first shot and allowing the defense to recover, L.A. didn’t take advantage of all those opportunities, though they created plenty.

The team got a big scare in the second quarter when Nneka Ogwumike fell to the ground clutching her left knee, the same one she sprained earlier in the season that kept her out of 14 games. The team was a bit deflated to end the half, getting outscored 11-6 over the final 3:42. Ogwumike returned to start the third quarter, but the Dream had found their momentum, specifically Odyssey Sims.

The former Spark struggled in her return games to Staples Center in 2019, and if she had any pent-up frustration about that situation, Sims took it out Tuesday. She had 16 first-half points and finished with 26 and six assists.

But she didn’t get the win. Her one-woman tour de force couldn’t match up with L.A.’s balanced attack. Ogwumike returned with a flourish in the second half, finishing with 13 points, nine rebounds, and nine assists. She was one of six Sparks who scored double digits.

Whatever the Sparks figured out in this win, they’ll have to put to use soon, as the Dream remain in town for an encore on Thursday.

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