With playoff elimination at stake, Sparks coach Brian Agler had to choose between thoroughly preparing his team for its next matchup or rest his players so they have the energy to execute.
Agler did not have time for both following a 75-68 win against the No. 7-seeded Minnesota Lynx at Staples Center on Tuesday night. The No. 6 Sparks play another single-elimination game, this time against the No. 3 Washington Mystics at the Charles Smith Center in D.C. on Thursday night, with a two-day break and a cross-country flight.
So Agler prioritized rest. He said the Sparks would arrive in Washington at 5 p.m. Wednesday, with only enough time to eat and watch film. Game day could entail more film, team meetings and maybe some walk-through exercises.
“A lot of it will be how we feel once we get there,” Agler said Tuesday night. “How do we feel Thursday morning? You know, is it gonna be one of those things where we go to the gym, or we don’t?”
Finding that balance has been an impossible task for WNBA teams. With the season condensed by 19 days to accommodate the FIBA World Cup, which begins Sept. 22, teams have been left with more travel, fewer practices and fewer breaks.
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said the burden is heaviest on the WNBA’s stars, who are already strained by the expectation of year-round excellence since many play professionally overseas.
“That is very difficult to sustain 365 days a year,” Reeve said. “And that’s why you see injuries, you see fatigue, you’ll see some changes this offseason with the players foregoing certain things. And, oh, by the way, when we finish here, we’re gonna go on a month-long stint with USA Basketball. So that has to change.”
Agler expressed similar sentiments.
“Does it catch up with you?” he said. “I know our players that have been playing year-round for two or three years in a row aren’t quite as fresh right now as they would have been in the past. So with the compact season and those things, I think it plays into that.”
Nneka Ogwumike drifted in and out of the lineup in the Sparks’ final regular-season games as she recovered from mononucleosis. While she was listed as questionable in Tuesday’s injury report, Ogwumike showed her old energy, contributing 19 points and five rebounds.
Candace Parker’s prognosis is less optimistic — an upset stomach, Agler said. He had to pull Parker from the game multiple times. She withdrew to the back of the locker room as Agler spoke with the team and was not available for postgame interviews. He did not comment on her status for Thursday, although she was not listed on the Sparks’ injury report.
The matchup with the Lynx had a quick turnaround, too. The Sparks wrapped up their regular season in Connecticut two days before with an 89-86 loss to the Sun. But that first elimination game was against their championship rival — the team they faced in back-to-back WNBA Finals and four regular-season contests. The Sparks knew what to expect.
“We probably wouldn’t even need to do a scouting report,” Agler said before the win, “just draw things up on a board and remind them and go out and play, because we’ve played so often.”
The Mystics are different. Although the two teams played Friday, a 69-67 win for Washington, the Mystics are far less familiar than the Lynx.
That makes preparation paramount, but readiness is still second to rest. The lack of time made that decision for Agler.
The Mystics are fresh after a four-day layoff while the Sparks will step on the court Thursday having been dealing with the unrelenting schedule.