Sparks entering a make-or-break homestand against the WNBA’s top two teams

Sparks center Amanda Zahui B (1) and guard Erica Wheeler celebrate after a turnover by the Washington Mystics.
Sparks center Amanda Zahui B, left, and guard Erica Wheeler had plenty to celebrate in a win over Washington last week. Their next four games are against the WNBA’s top two teams.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Struggling to keep their wounded team above .500, the Sparks face their toughest stretch of the season with four games in eight days against the WNBA’s top two teams. Coach Derek Fisher isn’t backing down from the challenge.

“Vegas is a good team, but they are human,” Fisher said the day before the Sparks host the Las Vegas Aces. “That’s why you play the games, to see who can put it together that night.”

After games against the Aces (11-4) on Wednesday and Friday, the Sparks (6-8) host the reigning champion Seattle Storm (12-4) and then travel to play Seattle on July 7.

With five games left until the Olympic break, the Sparks are in danger of dropping out of the playoff race. The monthlong hiatus could be a welcome respite for the team that’s battled injuries all season, but the Sparks are focused on staying together through the brutal stretch.


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July 11, 2021

“It’s keeping that next-man-up mentality,” guard Brittney Sykes said. “This team, anybody can go off anytime at any point in the game. It’s one of those things where if it’s your night, it’s your night. If it’s not your night, it’s still your night because you still gotta be a teammate.”

The Aces dominated the teams’ first meeting in Las Vegas, winning 97-69. The Sparks, playing their second game of the season, were without center Amanda Zahui B., who is eager to match up against an elite frontcourt in Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson for the first time this season.

“My job is to try to make them as uncomfortable as possible; try not to give them anything easy,” said Zahui B., whose most recent matchups included the WNBA’s leading scorer, Tina Charles (Washington), and Phoenix star Brittney Griner. “And it’s hard. It’s hard to play in this league. We’re playing against the best centers in the world back to back to back.”

Forwards Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike remain week to week with knee injuries. Nneka, who is out with a left knee sprain, was supposed to return in early July, but the need to rush her back before the Olympic break diminished after her controversial omission from Team USA’s Olympic roster, Fisher said.

Injuries forced the Sparks to temporarily expand their roster by signing forward Kristine Anigwe and guard Karlie Samuelson to hardship contracts. Both deals were terminated this week as the Sparks faced a deadline for midseason roster cuts and salary cap restrictions. The team expects to re-sign Samuelson to another hardship contract soon, a source said.


Guard Bria Holmes, who earned a spot on the roster after training camp but recently was slowed by a foot injury, also was waived.

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June 19, 2021

Samuelson, who scored a career-high 13 points on five-for-five shooting in a win against Washington last week, is in her fifth stint with the Sparks, the first since 2019 when she appeared in three games on a seven-day contract. The Santa Ana Mater Dei alumna has played 29 of her 33 career games with the Sparks.

Her winding road through the WNBA sets a good example for teammates and helps establish a culture of hard work, Fisher said, but Samuelson didn’t make the cut just to be a role model. Fisher kept her because he knows she can contribute.

“She’s gotten better, to be transparent with you,” Fisher said. “She’s gotten better than she was in 2019. … She’s scrappy, she’s tough, not afraid to mix it up. Does the right things on the defensive end.”

Defense was a pillar for Fisher’s remake of the team when he took over as general manager too. He prioritized players who could play multiple positions, attack the paint and play with pace. A main figure for the future was rookie Jasmine Walker, the No. 7 pick in the draft.

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June 29, 2021

But the former Alabama standout suffered a torn knee ligament in the second game. It was the first in several injuries that forced Fisher to readjust the vision he had.

Yes, he still wants to play fast and aggressive, but there are times when patience and appropriate shot selection will take priority for a hobbled roster of only eight healthy players.

“We still like the versatility that we’re building and that we showed during stretches of games,” Fisher said. “It’s just been difficult so far to put 40 minutes together, but that’s to be expected when you’re a work in progress.”