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Why the Sparks believe early season adversity could mold them into playoff contenders

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
Sparks players celebrate a win over the Phoenix Mercury on Monday at Crypto.com Arena.
(Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)

They battled through delays and cancellations. They woke up at 3 a.m. for early flights. The lucky ones slept in until 6 a.m.

After a few nightmarish weeks of commercial flights, the fact that the Sparks don’t have to return to the airport for three weeks made center Liz Cambage sigh with relief and joy.

“It’s litty!” Cambage said Monday night with a wide grin.

In the midst of a seven-game homestand, the Sparks can’t rest completely with playoff positioning at stake.

After starting the season with nine of 12 games on the road, the Sparks (10-11) entered the week in ninth place, one spot out of the playoffs. They jumped into a tie for sixth with the Atlanta Dream after back-to-back wins against the New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury on Sunday and Monday to extend their winning streak to three.

“My mindset being at home is you can’t relax,” interim head coach Fred Williams said Sunday. “You gotta protect home court.”

Four of the Sparks’ next five games are against teams currently in playoff position — beginning Thursday against Seattle — but it’s far from the toughest thing the team faced this season. They already survived May.

Nneka Ogwumike had 23 points and nine rebounds, and the Sparks beat the Phoenix Mercury 78-75 on Monday.

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Forward Nneka Ogwumike called the Sparks’ season-opening stretch with 11 games in 26 days, “the longest month of my life.”

The brutal month that included just three games at home and none consecutively caught Cambage’s eye. She knew it would be difficult, but she saw light at the end of the tunnel in July: 11 games in 31 days, only two on the road and none requiring a time zone change.

“I’m just proud of us for staying together,” Cambage said after scoring 19 points with seven rebounds in a win over the Mercury on Monday. “That first month could have really seen teams go the other way, but we just want to be the best we can be individually and as a team.”

A 5-7 start to the season, which included a five-game losing streak, forced a coaching change. The Sparks lost three of their first four games under Williams, including an 82-59 blowout to Chicago at home on June 23. But they have found their stride by winning four of their last five despite being short-handed in the backcourt. Without Brittney Sykes (health and safety protocols) and Chennedy Carter (knee), and Kristi Toliver injuring her calf early against New York, Lexie Brown stepped up to play 38 and 34 minutes on consecutive nights, scoring 22 combined points on six-for-nine three-point shooting with seven steals.

Brittney Griner sent heartbreaking letter to President Biden from a Russian prison pleading for her freedom. Her teammates worry no one is listening.

“I’ve kind of embraced that three-and-D role on this team,” said Brown, who recovered between the back-to-back games by putting her legs in compression recovery boots, nursing a glass of wine and watching “Stranger Things.”

Williams has ratcheted up her defense and tried to push the pace on offense, but players credit much of the team’s improvement to simple practice after so much time on the road. The growing chemistry showed when five players scored in double figures on back-to-back nights to open the homestand.

“I really love the communication between not just the starters, but the whole team,” Ogwumike said. “People are trying to make the right play, and I think that’s the mark of a team you want to play on.”

While the Sparks get to avoid the airport until a July 23 game at Las Vegas, Ogwumike will fly to Chicago this weekend for the All-Star Game. The 32-year-old ranks fifth in the league in scoring with 18.8 points and second in field-goal percentage at 57.8%. The production earned Ogwumike her seventh All-Star honor and her first starting role, but her teammates don’t want recognition to stop there.

Brittney Griner has made an appeal to President Joe Biden in a letter passed through her representatives, saying she feared she might never return home.

"[I don’t know] if anyone has said it, but Nneka should be in MVP conversations,” Brown tweeted after Sunday’s win in which Ogwumike scored 22 points on nine-for-13 shooting.

Ogwumike, who didn’t see the tweet, was appreciative of her teammate’s support, but downplayed any MVP discussion.

“I want a ring,” Ogwumike said softly.

“We’re going to get both for her,” Brown added.


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