The Sparks’ season ended with the team searching for sparks.
Down 2-0 in the WNBA semifinals and on the verge of elimination, Los Angeles came out flat against the Connecticut Sun on Sunday at the Walter Pyramid in Long Beach. The Sparks stayed flat throughout, losing 78-56 and watching their opponent celebrate a series sweep and WNBA Finals berth.
After falling into an early deficit, Sparks coach Derek Fisher searched his bench for potential answers, using 11 players in the first half. He apparently didn’t believe star forward Candace Parker was one of those answers.
Parker played just seven minutes in the first half and four in the second half. She finished with four points, one game after scoring just three in 26 minutes. Afterward, the two-time league most valuable player made it clear that health was not a problem, saying: “Physically, mentally, everything’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with me.”
Asked why she played sparsely, Parker replied, “That’s for Fish.”
Yet her coach’s reasoning didn’t shed much light as to why one of the WNBA’s top players rode the bench with the season on the line.
“Just trying to find energy, find spark, find physicality and things that we were continuing to search for,” Fisher said. “I know it’s Candace Parker and we’re going to try to make it about her 11 minutes, but it was just about trying to do something different that would try and help us win.”
With or without Parker, the Sparks’ offense was listless Sunday. Los Angeles scored more than 12 points in just one quarter and had only one player in double figures. All-Star Nneka Ogwumike scored 17 points on seven-for-15 shooting from the field, but the rest of the team combined to shoot 16 for 60 (26.7%).
The Sparks had won 15 straight games at home, but they were forced down the road to Cal State Long Beach because Staples Center was being used for the Emmy Awards.
The Sun were led by Jasmine Thomas, who outplayed her point guard counterpart, All-Star Chelsea Gray. Thomas finished with 29 points, five rebounds and four assists, but it was her defense on Gray, who was held to seven points on three-for-13 shooting, that set the tempo all series.
“Chelsea Gray is amazing,” said Sun guard Courtney Williams, who scored 17 points. “And the job that [Thomas] did on Chelsea Gray in these three games has been tremendous. We definitely would not be in this position if she didn’t have that chip on her shoulder and didn’t play with that intensity on defense.”
The Sparks didn’t envision their season ending in a sweep, but the year was still a step in the right direction. Despite players missing dozens of games to injuries, an overseas commitment and a league suspension, the team improved on its 2018 win total by three games and advanced a round further in the playoffs.
“I’m just really proud of my team,” Ogwumike said. “We had a lot of new things thrown at us, we had a hard July, but I’m proud of my team. I’m happy to be with this organization. And I’m looking forward to seeing how things pan out.”