The Los Angeles Sparks are back in the WNBA Semifinals. After losing to the Washington Mystics in the second round last year, LA cruised past Seattle to continue their quest for a WNBA Championship. They will take on the second-seeded Connecticut Sun in a five-game series. In 2019, the Sparks won the season series against the Sun 2-1, winning both games at Staples Center and losing at Mohegan Sun Arena. Game One is tonight at 3:30 pm PT on ESPN2, so let’s look at what’s going with the Sparks heading into the series.
The Big 3 + 1 (+ 8)
There are people who think the Chelsea Gray is the best player on the Los Angeles Sparks after leading the team with 21 points, 8 assists and 3 rebounds against the Seattle Storm on Sunday. There are people who think Nneka Ogwumike is the Most Valuable Player on the Sparks after she dropped 17 points and grabbed 6 rebounds with 2 steals against the Storm. There are people who think Candace Parker is the most talented player on the Sparks after her all-around double double performance with 11 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists against the Storm.
With a myriad of statistical examples, combined with impressive eye tests, a respectable argument can be made that all three thoughts about Gray, Ogwumike and Parker are interchangeably true. But the 2019 LA Sparks are much more than three All-Star players. When it comes to scoring, they are a Big 3 (Gray, N. Ogwumike, Parker) + 1 in Riquna Williams. The Sparks are 12-3 with Williams in the starting lineup. The University of Miami product is averaging about 15 points per game through the last 15 games.
However, the other eight players on the team’s 12 woman roster could push this team to the WNBA Finals. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Sydney Wiese, Chiney Ogwumike and Alana Beard make LA arguably the most talented and deepest team in the W. The Sparks will need to rely on that depth to try to outlast Connecticut.
Alana Beard’s Impact
Alana Beard is a 14-year league veteran who was named the 2017 & 2018 WNBA Defensive Player and she is coming off the bench for this team. Against Seattle in the first round, she had four timely points in the first half. But her greatest impact was disrupting Jordin Canada for seven minutes, picking her up full court, hounding the emerging star into inefficiency. Her teammates were happy to see her play well.
“It’s good to see her get going and we have faith in her whenever she steps on the court,” said Sparks All-Star Point Guard Chelsea Gray. “Her voice, her presence and her message is always felt. It’s nice to have her out there on the court and be an impact.”
“Any chance I can play with her, I cherish,” added Sparks All-Star Forward Nneka Ogwumike, who also recently won the 2019 Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award. “She’s been on this team the whole time I’ve been on this team… Anytime I get to be out there with her, I really take advantage of it.”
Beard has the potential to be a key player against the Connecticut Sun, as she will be asked to guard Jasmine Thomas, Courtney Williams and possibly Shekinna Stricklen. Limiting any of those players for a three to seven minute stretch can disrupt the perimeter attack of the Sun.
Charter Flight from LA to Connecticut
After the LA Sparks beat the Seattle Storm, Candace Parker was looking forward to the team’s charter flight from LA to the east coast Sunday afternoon.
“I think it’s definitely an advantage. It’s been a long time coming,” Parker said with a smile on her face. “It’s a good thing and a step in the right direction.”
Parker’s feelings were echoed by her fellow Big 3 teammates Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray. The flight allowed the Sparks to spend Sunday night in Connecticut and practice Monday afternoon after getting a full-night’s rest. The alternative would have been a commercial red-eye flight Sunday night, which wouldn’t land until Monday morning, leaving less time to prepare for Game 1 on Tuesday, September 17.
Instead, Sparks players got to kick back and play cards on a charter flight. The flight allowed another opportunity for a team bonding experience. The team has lacked those time because they have only played in or traveled to a few games this season with all 12 players available to play. That sort of experience before the Playoffs bodes well for the team trusting in one another.
How to beat LA
Sunday’s 23 point win against the Storm, marked the 15th straight home win at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. To say homecourt is an advantage is an understatement. However, no team is invincible and the Sparks finished the regular season 7-10 on the road. The Connecticut Sun are an equally great team at Mohegan Sun Arena, boasting a 15-2 home record. Unfortunately, the Sun will have home court in this series and the Sparks will need to steal a game in Connecticut. It will be a tough task and homecourt advantage could decide this series.
After Seattle’s loss to LA, the Storm tried to explain how to stop the Sparks. While it didn’t necessarily work for them, Seattle played LA very tight in the first half and gave the offense some trouble. So this is probably some good advice for the Sun. After all, if anyone has the slightest idea of how to slow down the LA Sparks, it’s Natasha Howard, the 2019 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year.
“Keep the ball out of Chelsea’s hands. Pick up full court if Parker is bringing the ball up the court (Nneka too) and let all the other players around them, make plays,” said 2019 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard, when I asked her what she would do if the Seattle Storm were playing against the LA Sparks in the WNBA Semifinals.
“Like Tasha said, keep it out of Chelsea’s hands and make someone else run their offense. Also, Candace tried to crowd her as much as possible, same with Nneka. They’re a great rebounding team as well so try to box them out. Also being aggressive and playing with pace,” added Storm Guard Jordin Canada, an LA native who starred at UCLA. “They’re a really great transition team, so just trying to cut down their points in transition, making them play half court.”
“They’re a challenge because you need to rebound well against (the LA Sparks). You need to shoot well against this team,” shared Seattle Storm Head Coach Dan Hughes. “What will be really interesting is they’ve been awfully dominant here (at Staples Center), going into a series. Now you’re going to go to (Connecticut) where that team has the opportunity to play three home games (in a five game series).”
However, apply those defensive principles is another story on the basketball court. “It’s a chore, they’re a good team. They’re legit and it’s going to be a great series,” Hughes concluded.
PREDICTION: LA IN 4
“We’re a team of moments. We’re a team of opportunities. We’re a team that grinds,” Nneka Ogwumike said.
“It’s rewarding to have a full roster,” Gray said.
The Sparks bench was the model of efficiency against the Storm. They outscored the Storm by 26 points during the 24 minutes Sydney Wiese was on the court. The Sparks outscored the Storm by 29 points during the 17 minutes Chiney Ogwumike was on the court. They also outscored the Storm by 30 points during the 17 minutes Alana Beard was on the court.
“Those are the things we’re going to have to have going down the stretch,” Gray revealed. “It’s going to take everybody.”
If the Sparks and Sun starting lineups are equally matched, the bench will be the difference in the series. Sydney Wiese, Chiney Ogwumike and Alana Beard are all proven WNBA starters. Chiney Ogwumike’s energy against her former team is an x-factor that the Sun will be prepared for but may not be able to match. The defensive presence of Wiese, Chiney, Beard and the added depth of the Maria Vadeeva, Alexis Jones, Marina Mabrey and Kalani Brown may be too much for the Sun to handle in a best of five series.
I believe the Sparks will win one of the first two games on the road in Connecticut and close out the series in Los Angeles in four games.