Column: Weary Sparks show their toughness in advancing to the next round of playoffs

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - AUG. 21, 2018. Sparks center Candace Parker defends against Lynx center Sylvi
Sparks center Candace Parker defends against Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles in the fourth quarter of an WNBA playoff game at Staples Center on Tuesday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The game began with DJ Mal-Ski trying to fill the late-summer Staples Center crowd with some postseason basketball buzz.

“Who’s ready, who’s ready, who’s ready?” he shouted. “Somebody scream!”

Turns out, somebody did. It was the Sparks.

For two hours they roared, from a scorching three-point line to a pliable rim, from their weary legs to their sweaty smiles, from here into the next round of the playoffs and maybe beyond.


There is no tougher team in town, at least not right now, not after the exhausted Sparks survived a one-game playoff against their nemesis, the Minnesota Lynx, in a 75-68 victory.

“Every day is digging,” an ailing Nneka Ogwumike said. “We all know each other. We all push each other. We did that tonight.”

This fight began with the defending champion Lynx taking an 11-point lead midway through the second quarter. But Ogwumike led a fist-pumping charge into halftime, then Riquna Williams picked it up with a blistering 17-point second half, and Chelsea Gray dominated throughout with a game-high 26 points.

And, oh yeah, and they did all this virtually without two-time MVP Candace Parker, who, while suffering through a variety of physical ailments, made only one basket and took only six shots.


It ended, rather appropriately, with the Sparks making big defensive stops in a final two minutes while the mascot Sparky played air guitar with his bone and sang into his tail while leading the crowd in “Don’t Stop Believing.”

“There are never any doubts. We understand who we have in this locker room, this core has been together a very long time, we have that belief in each other,” Alana Beard said in a quiet locker room filled with weary and icing players.

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - AUG. 21, 2018. Sparks guard Chelsea Gray tries to work through the Lynx defe
Sparks guard Chelsea Gray tries to work through the Minnesota Lynx defense in the fourth quarter of an WNBA playoff game at Staples Center on Tuesday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

They indeed can’t stop now. This was only the first step in what would be Herculean Sparks effort to somehow climb back from a sixth-place regular-season finish to a third consecutive WNBA Finals.

In this nutty WNBA postseason schedule, the Sparks now have to travel to Washington for another one-game playoff Thursday against the Mystics. If they survive that game, they finally will advance to a real series in the league semifinals.

“We know it’s going to take a lot of work,” Beard said. “It’s going to be a fight, it’s not going to be easy, we completely understand that.”

When the game ended, they allowed themselves a bit of fun, the Sparks gathering in a midcourt circle around a dancing Gray. But afterward, they were quickly thinking about just one thing: sleep.

When asked if her focus was on the Mystics, Ogwumike said, “No, our focus is on rest.”


After all, they took the court after reaching their homes at 3 a.m. Monday following a flight from a regular-season finale in Connecticut.

When asked about pregame preparations, Coach Brian Agler simply said, “We’re trying to get them caught up on their sleep.”

They also took the court after struggling with injuries and energy throughout a mediorce season that, for most, was their third consecutive year of 12-month basketball after making the WNBA Finals in each of the previous two years.

“I know our players playing year-round for two to three years in a row aren’t quite as fresh have they have been in the past,” Agler said.

Finally, they also took the court with Ogwumike recovering from a bout with mono while Beard and Parker had been struggling with injuries. They had lost four of their last five games and seemed wiped out.

“But one thing we’ve emphasized around here is no excuses,” Beard said.

Even so, considering the veteran, physical Lynx had ended the Sparks’ season in two of the last three years, the Sparks could have come out daunted.

“I’ll be interested to see if we can flip the switch and make plays when it counts,” Agler said before the game.


Consider that switch flipped.

The Sparks won even though they were outrebounded and outshot.

They won with hustle. They won with all that digging.

“You win or you go home, that’s what it boils down to, and any competitor knows what that means,” said Essence Carson. “If you can’t wake up for those games, you might as well not play at all.”

They woke up after entering the game in danger of not advancing to at least the semifinals for the first time in seven years. They had those four losses in five games, but three of those defeats were by an average of four points a game, as the Sparks tired down the stretch.

Not on Tuesday, in front of a crowd that included Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo, both of whom part of a group of 8,598 that, in the end, was screaming right along with the Sparks.

“No way did we want our season to end like this,” Carson said.

And now, the fight continues with the flight to Washington, D.C.

“Wake up early, fly coast to coast, third six-hour fight in 10 days,” Ogwumike said when asked about their next step.

I asked her if the WNBA offers charter flights for at least the playoffs. She laughed so loud the locker room shook. She might still be laughing.

“No,” she said. “They don’t.”

And so the Sparks’ center-seat tour rolls on.

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke