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Sparks keep playoff hopes alive with blowout win over Storm

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With great defense and efficient scoring, Los Angeles beat Seattle 81-53.

Seattle Storm v Los Angeles Sparks Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Sparks entered their Sunday night game against the Seattle Storm — the last regular season game at home this year — needing a victory to stay alive in the race for the WNBA playoffs. The Washington Mystics, currently clinging to the eighth and final seed, won earlier in the day, meaning a Sparks loss would eliminate them from playoff contention.

All you can do with a team on the verge of elimination is hope they play with urgency befitting the situation, and that’s precisely what L.A. did.

The Sparks, gifted a Seattle team playing without 2018 WNBA MVP and two-time WNBA Finals MVP Breanna Stewart, jumped on Seattle, particularly on the defensive end. From the get-go, L.A.’s defenders hounded every Storm player who had the ball, making life miserable and a little claustrophobic.

At first they threatened to go overboard with it, with a touch of over-aggression that led to a few too many fouls. But eventually they found the sweet spot, settling into suffocating but legal defense.

But while the defensive effort deserves the bulk of the credit for the L.A.’s 81-53 win, the tone was set just a few minutes into the contest when Erica Wheeler sent legendary Storm point guard Sue Bird face first into the hardwood with the most wicked of crossovers.

Oh no. That’s just rude.

Let’s watch it again.

It was clearly the play of the game, and likely the play of the season for the Sparks, when they needed it most. I can’t even move on with discussing the game, let’s queue up the reactions.

OK, that’s enough roasting Sue. We can move on now.

The Sparks defensive effort — led by Brittney Sykes, who drew the Jewell Lloyd assignment, and held the All-Star to five points on 2-for-9 shooting — kept Seattle from getting to the paint and getting easy buckets. Seattle settled mainly for jump shots all night long, and consistently came up short on those jumpers.

“Brittney Sykes and Te’a [Cooper] and Erica Wheeler, our perimeter players, they just accepted the challenge to try and make it as hard as possible,” said coach Derek Fisher. “They took the challenge, tried to make them work as much as possible, and it’s something that we have to understand, that we’re not gonna shoot the ball every night but if we can make it really difficult for teams to score, we’ll always have a chance.”

Nneka Ogwumike and Amanda Zahui B. were waiting in the paint on the rare occasions when Seattle ventured in, but for the most part they stuck with flat, unreliable jumpers, making just 32.1% of their shots and 22.2% of their threes.

The Sparks on the other hand, got past Seattle’s initial line of defense and to the rim with regularity. Te’a Cooper came off the bench to lead all scorers with 19 points, while Wheeler and Ogwumike each tossed in 17. L.A. shot 46.2% from distance, but attempted just 13 threes on the game, preferring to get closer to the hoop.

By halftime the game was all but decided, and Seattle looked checked out for much of the second half.

The Sparks, who are now 11-19, play the Atlanta Dream on Thursday. They’ll need to win again if they hope to keep their playoff dreams alive.