This time last season, the Sparks were limping into the playoffs, losers of four of their last five, weary from cross-country travel and sporting an uninspiring record. They were bounced from the second round of the playoffs in embarrassing fashion with a 32-point road loss to the Washington Mystics.
Things sure can change in a year. With the third seed already locked up, and nothing to play for as far as the standings go, the Sparks hosted the Minnesota Lynx in the regular-season finale. Unlike L.A., Minnesota had playoff positioning on the line and every reason to play its hardest.
It didn’t matter. The Sparks controlled the second half, won 77-68 and enter the postseason with a three-game winning streak, a 14-game home winning streak and a record (22-12) that’s three wins better than the 2018 squad. But they know that it’s all for not if they don’t show up when it matters most.
Sparks forward Candace Parker — who finished with 11 points, seven rebounds and three assists — said that strong or poor finishes to the regular season are not necessarily predictors of how the playoffs will go. She recalled that when the Sparks won the 2016 WNBA title, “we finished struggling [to end the regular season]. … We’ve got to have a great week of practice and preparation.”
While the Sparks were certainly playing to win, they prioritized resting their players before the playoffs. Point guard Chelsea Gray led the team with just 27 minutes played, but that was more than enough time for the All-Star to finish with 14 points, eight assists and six rebounds.
With the stars getting plenty of rest, the Sparks couldn’t get any first-half separation against the Lynx and led by just two at halftime. Then came the third quarter and a spurt from Riquna Williams. Williams, who led the team with 15 points, made a trio of three-pointers within 3½ minutes, the last of which resulted in a four-point play. That capped a 12-4 run that pushed the lead to double digits and got the Staples Center crowd of 13,500 on its feet.
“If the fans are rockin’, then we’re doing something right,” Williams said. “That’s normally where that momentum comes from. It’s great having fans behind you, because it really puts so much positive energy in the building. And it helps us play better.”
Once the lead was secured, coach Derek Fisher was able to fully turn the game over to the bench for the fourth quarter. Led by Chiney Ogwumike, who finished the game with nine points and six rebounds, the reserves maintained the lead against a Minnesota team that Los Angeles has faced in the playoffs in each of the last four years.
It could be five. The Sparks will host a single-elimination second-round game Sunday at noon, with the seventh-seeded Lynx one of three potential opponents. They will hope the second round goes a little smoother than it did a year ago.