The Los Angeles Sparks now control their own playoff destiny. And they wouldn’t have it any other way. Despite 39 games missed the Ogwumike’s and Kristi Toliver, the Sparks are currently on a four-game winning streak after beating the Indiana Fever, the Atlanta Dream twice, and most recently the New York Liberty.
Those games, which they have won by an average of 3.75 points, have elevated the team to a 10-13 record. If the season were to end today, that’s good enough for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Though the Sparks are in the midst of a six-game road trip that will last more than two weeks, they are comfortable with cliché—they are taking it one game at a time.
While having Nneka Ogwumike, Kristi Toliver, and Chiney Ogwumike healthy makes this team feel whole, it’s the standout defense of Te’a Cooper and Nia Coffey that has been extremely impactful and impressive. Cooper and Coffey are consistently relied on to help anchor the Sparks defense, which is led by Defensive Player of the Year and all-defensive first team candidate Brittney Sykes.
Just tryna make my case for DPOY 💯 https://t.co/g14jGPr5HG
— NWK FINEST (@BrittBundlez) August 22, 2021
With the season salvaged and the team’s playoff push in their hands, Sparks general manager and head coach Derek Fisher’s decision to build around Nneka as his franchise player has been validated. In four games since the Olympic break, Nneka is averaging 14.5 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1.8 steals per game on 53.1 percent shooting. On August 17, she nearly had a triple-double, ending up with 13 points, 9 rebounds, and 9 assists against the Atlanta Dream.
I told Derek Fisher I described Nneka Ogwumike’s near triple double 13 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists as a masterclass in perseverance on Twitter. Fisher said he agreed with my assessment and that he would retweet me. @derekfisher pic.twitter.com/9Ijw796R3a
— John W. Davis (@johnwdavis) August 18, 2021
“That’s the trick in this life right, to not necessarily wait or rely on these external things or external validation from other sources,” said Fisher. “Because at the end of the day, we’re always in control of our own destiny… it really rests in our hands, in our heart, and in our spirit. When you talk about it in the context of a team, it’s us.”
Fisher, who won five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, learned under the coaching of Phil Jackson, who is known as the “zen master” in basketball circles. Fisher’s approach is similar, as he often refers to the importance of self-reflection and self-awareness as principles that are just as important as properly executing a pick-and-roll.
“It’s not the opponent. It’s not the referees. It’s not the fans. It’s not the schedule,” Fisher added. “We are in control of our ability to make the right decisions to show the type of discipline…in order to win.”
With nine games remaining, the Sparks have a realistic chance to finish as high as sixth, which would allow the team to host a first-round playoff game at Staples Center, where they currently have an 18-game winning streak dating back to June 27, 2019. (The Sparks would hold a tiebreaker against the Chicago Sky, who are currently sixth in the standings, because LA swept the head-to-head season series against Chicago.)
“In the standings, it says one thing, but the only way to get into that position is to carry yourself in the way that you control your own destiny. You control the reality that you live in,” Fisher explained.
“What the standings say shouldn’t necessarily change our approach,” Fisher continued. “Most of the time it does because we’re human beings, but it shouldn’t. So, we have to keep our head focused on the situation and the moment that’s right in front of us.”
Chiney surrenders to opportunity
But that’s the thing about controlling one’s future: destiny can often be fickle. No one knows this better than Chiney Ogwumike, the number overall pick in the 2014 WNBA Draft, has missed most of the season dealing with a lingering right knee injury.
“I think it’s just one game at a time,” Chiney said. “I think everyone is working on themselves, and I think it shows as a collective with how we’ve treated coming out of the break in the last four wins. Finding that maturity as a unit, leaning on our veterans and Coach Fisher’s experience. I think that everyone is becoming who they need to be, and it’s helping our team as a unit. I don’t even think about the playoffs. I think about the next matchup and surrendering myself to that opportunity.”
For the rest of the season, per Fisher, the Sparks will have ten active players, since rookie Jasmine Walker is recovering from a torn right ACL, and center Maria Vadeeva will remain overseas for the duration of the 2021 season.
However, Fisher is seemingly comfortable with an eight-person rotation featuring starters Erica Wheeler, Kristi Toliver, Brittney Sykes, Nneka Ogwumike, and Amanda Zahui B., with key reserves Te’a Cooper, Nia Coffey, and Chiney Ogwumike. Rookie guard Arella Guirantes and second-year center Lauren Cox are available but seemingly out of the rotation. However, all available players must remain engaged and encouraged, meaning Guirantes and Cox could be called upon at a moment’s notice and be expected to hold their own.
“I think every player on this team sort of has that special gift of being present,” Chiney shared. “Coach Fisher talks about it all the time—we are in LA. There’s a lot of things that could be going on but when we step on the court, whether it’s a practice or the game, we know exactly where we’re at, who we’re with and what our goals are.
“I think that is what is finally translating to us being there for each other when it matters most,” Chiney added, “whether we are down ten, we’re down two or up ten. That’s just the energy that we’re on.”
Erica Wheeler Is Ready
2019 All-Star MVP Erica Wheeler has never won a playoff game in the WNBA.
Entering her sixth season, Wheeler has only made the WNBA Playoffs one time, in 2016 with the Indiana Fever. Wheeler started in that game, but the Fever were knocked out in the first round, 89-78 by the Phoenix Mercury.
But Wheeler is the only Sparks player who has started all 23 games this season. To say that the undrafted 5’7” guard out of Rutgers has consistently been the team’s best guard is an understatement.
A vet herself, Wheeler is also staying in the moment, per the mantra of Coach Fisher.
“I don’t think any of us are thinking ahead that far,” Wheeler said. “With that focus that everyone has in the locker room, it’s next team [up]. We’re not looking far down the line when we play in September, and where we’re going to be at because when you start doing that, you lose sight of what the real goal is.
“The goal is to make sure that we prepare for each team, each night.”
Meanwhile, making the playoffs and becoming a champion is the primary reason Wheeler signed with the Sparks.
“That’s why I came to LA. I want to make the playoffs. I want to be able to feel what that feels like.”
The sixth through 10th seeds are separated by just 2.5 games with less than a month to go in the regular season. (The playoffs begin on September 23.) Between now and then, we will quickly find out if the Sparks are contenders or pretenders.
The Sparks play key three games against the Connecticut Sun, who put the Sparks out of the playoffs in 2019 and 2010. They will also face perennial playoff stalwarts like the Minnesota Lynx and Seattle Storm as they make their final playoff push.
If the Sparks focus on what they can control and play with and for each other, they have the potential to surprise many doubters who, when Chelsea Gray and Candace Parker decided to sign elsewhere, destined the Sparks to the league’s bottom four. For now, it appears the Sparks still have an ace up their sleeve, and the sky’s the limit.