WNBA

Sparks Ready to Ruin Someone’s Playoff Plans

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With the WNBA playoffs looming, the LA Sparks are scrapping and clawing their way up the standings. Winners of four straight, LA has gone from an afterthought to a team to watch as they have climbed into the eighth spot. Bolstered by the return of Nneka Ogwumike, the Sparks are surging at the right time. They may not be a championship contender, but the team has the makings of a nightmare postseason matchup.

For every flaw or weakness this LA team has, they have an equally impactful strength. What makes them scary is that, in some games, their weaknesses aren’t as prominent. While this may not serve them well over a series, in a one-game matchup, the unpredictability could help LA send a team home early.

Disruptive Defense

Even while the Ogwumikes were out, the Sparks established themselves as a disruptive, dynamic defensive unit. The sisters’ return has added an element that they were lacking inside, particularly in the pick-and-roll and on the boards. During their latest win streak, the Sparks have averaged four more rebounds than their season average, in part to having their front court depth back. Their presence also takes pressure off Amanda Zahui B. inside, which helps Zahui B stay out of foul trouble.

The Sparks make up for their general lack of offense by creating turnovers. They also do a great job of limiting their own. Led by defensive dynamo Brittney Sykes, LA hounds opposing ball-handlers from start to finish (literally).

The Sparks’ vaunted defense isn’t limited to their starters, either. Te’a Cooper and Nia Coffey bring similar levels of activity and versatility off the bench. Cooper’s strength and quickness create problems for smaller or less athletic guards. Coffey can defend 1-4. Any unit containing Sykes, Cooper, Coffey, and Nneka will be a headache for any opponent, and could swing a game for LA.

New Circumstances, Same Nneka

After the longest absence of her career, Nneka Ogwumike has picked up right where she left off. The 2016 MVP has been a stabilizing force a Sparks team that desperately needed it. It’s not outlandish to say their streak doesn’t happen without her. Ogwumike’s sound play on both ends has added elements to the Sparks system that it was originally built around, and it’s obvious on the court.

On offense, Nneka has continued in her extremely efficient ways, shooting 53% over the last four games. She has also reached double digits in each game, averaging 14.5 points per contest. Her ability to score inside has served the Sparks well, and opened things up for her teammates on the perimeter and in cutting lanes. Her movement off the ball helps create mismatches, usually for herself and a teammate simultaneously. On top of her scoring, Nneka has also been an active and effective passer. She has added five assists a night since returning.

Defensively, Nneka’s combination of mobility, strength, and size allows her easily switch onto perimeter players, box out bigger posts, and create turnovers. She can play either big spot, which has given Derek Fisher some flexibility in his rotations. Ogwumike’s presence will also help the Sparks continue to limit points in the paint. They currently rank second in the league in fewest allowed.

Clutch Chemistry

Perhaps the most promising part of this Sparks win streak has been their ability closing out close games. The team struggled with that before the break. Brittney Sykes cited the break as an important reason why LA is performing better in these games lately:

Being a veteran team, the Sparks are well-equipped for late game situations. Veteran Kristi Toliver helps keep the offense steady. Her championship experiences come in handy during these close games. Nneka, Sykes, and Zahui B provide stability down the stretch as well, especially with their pacing on offense. As a whole, the Sparks commit the sixth-fewest turnovers in the league, and give up the third-fewest points off of their mistakes, which helps them keep their opponents from building momentum.

In the fourth quarter of games in particular, the Sparks elevate their defense even further, allowing the fewest points in the paint and fast break points. They also have the third best defensive rating in the quarter.

A Scary Sight

The Sparks are getting things together at the best time possible. They have a great chance to hold on to a playoff seed, likely somewhere between sixth and eighth. When the time comes, they have the potential to ruin another team’s playoff parade. Regardless of seeding, they will be the team no one wants to face in the postseason, and could end a contender’s run early.

 

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About Richmond Bailey Caldwell

Die-hard Grizzlies fan since 2009. Aspiring basketball writer and coach. University of Georgia sport management alum. Perennial first team all-defense selection.

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