WNBA playoffs: Sparks make it look easy, cruise past Sky, 99-84, for 2-0 series lead
In the thick of a turbulent third quarter Friday night, when a bevy of Sparks mistakes gave the Chicago Sky a hint of life in Game 2 of the WNBA semifinals, one of the Sparks’ steadiest players was exactly that.
Jantel Lavender does not start. She does not sink three-pointers or make attention-grabbing plays at the rim.
But the 6-foot-4 center simply produces, almost without fail, and was key in the Sparks’ 99-84 win at Staples Center. Lavender, who was named the WNBA’s sixth woman of the year Wednesday, tied for a game-high with 20 points in 22 minutes off the bench. She also made her first eight shots, not missing until there was 7:21 left in the game, and finished 10 for 11 from the field.
Five Sparks players finished with 10 or more points in front of a crowd that included Clippers point guard Chris Paul, former Lakers point guard Derek Fisher and gold medal-winning sprinter Allyson Felix. They now lead the Sky 2-0 in the best-of-five series, and will travel to Chicago for a chance to sweep Sunday.
“I was just like, ‘When I’m open I’m shooting it,’ and tonight was a good night,” Lavender said. “I feel like they just kept leaving me open, so I was just shooting it. I thought about going back to the basket, but that high-post shot was good tonight.”
Just like she did in Game 1, Candace Parker set the tone for the Sparks in the early going. The 6-foot-4 forward collected eight points, six rebounds and three assists in the first quarter. The Sparks then pushed the pace in the second, and outscored the Sky 29-15 to take a 15-point halftime lead.
Parker jogged into the locker room with 14 points. Nneka Ogwumike, the WNBA’s most valuable player, had 11. Essence Carson made three of five from beyond the arc in the first half, and had 11 points at the break.
And then there was Lavender, quietly sinking all four of her mid-range attempts to chip in eight first-half points.
“She’s a microwave, honestly, that’s what I call her,” Parker , who scored 20 points, said of Lavender. “She comes in, she heats up, she does what she’s supposed to do. Her jump shot’s a layup.”
The Sky, desperately trying to hold on with star forward Elena Delle Donne still sidelined by a thumb injury, turned up the defensive pressure in the third. That led to a handful of Sparks turnovers, and helped the visitors trim the deficit to 12 toward the end of the quarter.
On cue, Lavender hit her fifth mid-range jumper in a row. A minute later, Chelsea Gray found Lavender with a deft no-look pass from behind half court and the center converted at the rim. Gray turned to the Sparks bench, and emphatically pumped her right fist while screaming, “Let’s go!”
Lavender calmly jogged back on defense. She then hit another jump shot as the third-quarter clock wound down, and her expression remained unchanged.
With that, a faint comeback was flattened and the Sparks coasted to a second consecutive lopsided win.
“We don’t drop off when she’s in the game,” Sparks Coach Brian Agler said of Lavender. “I know she got an award which she was really deserving of, but she could be a starter for us and most teams in this league.”
Follow Jesse Dougherty on Twitter @dougherty_jesse
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