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Sparks resume season with healthy stars, playoff hopes

Sparks guard Kristi Toliver dribbles past Mystics guard Leilani Mitchell.
Sparks guard Kristi Toliver dribbles past Mystics guard Leilani Mitchell during a game earlier this season.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Seeing 10 healthy players on the court was enough to bring a smile to coach Derek Fisher’s face. The seemingly mundane sight of two teams of five matched up against each other has been rare on the Sparks’ purple-and-gold court at Academy USA this year.

Battered by injuries, the Sparks subsisted mostly on drills and mental reps while learning on the fly during the first half of the season. They fell to 10th in the WNBA standings and limped into the Olympic break with a six-game losing streak.

Now they’re calling in reinforcements. The Sparks (6-13) resume their season Sunday against the Indiana Fever at Staples Center with hopes that leadership from Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver can help dig them out of their first-half hole.

“Elite teams are player-led,” Fisher said. “Coaches, management, ownership, we try and help them set the table but then once the table is set, they have to then handle it from there. So Kristi and Nneka give us a chance to be a player-led team.”

Ogwumike played in only five games before suffering a knee sprain. An eye injury kept Toliver out for the last six games. Chiney Ogwumike, who played in only three games, is battling through lingering knee soreness and still questionable for Sunday’s game.

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Even without three starters, the Sparks are only 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot. Five of their final 13 regular-season games are against the last-place Fever and the Atlanta Dream, which entered the Olympic break tied with the Sparks in the standings, and eight are on the road.

Sparks leader Nneka Ogwumike has fought off self-doubt and worked through an injury in hopes of helping herself and the team “rise from the ashes.”

“We’re kind of entering a new season with this second half and also with a new team almost,” Ogwumike said. “As we develop this chemistry on defense, I think that’s really what’s going to fuel us to know each other on both ends of the floor.”

The Sparks relied on their defense to stay competitive, but often broke down late in games. Fatigue and the mental strain of a struggling offense that was the worst in offensive rating were evident. Erica Wheeler tried to carry the backcourt with 14 points and 4.4 assists per game as second-year guard Te’a Cooper and mid-season signing Karlie Samuelson moved in and out of the starting lineup.

Toliver “gave them an ‘A’ for everything” considering the challenges, but the 13-year veteran also noticed some bad habits. Composure was lost at times. It might have reminded the former Maryland star of her younger self, which she called a “loose cannon.”

“Now at the ripe age of 34, I’ve kind of brought it down,” Toliver said smiling. “So just having the different levels of personality, demeanor, I think I’ll bring a little bit more of just an even-keeledness to our team when things get helter-skelter.”

Toliver and both Ogwumike sisters tried to coach their younger teammates through the struggles from the bench. They poked their heads into huddles and pulled players aside to provide additional advice.

“The constant message that I gave my team was I don’t care about the outcome. It’s about how it happens,” Nneka Ogwumike said. “Whether it’s a win or a lose, it’s about how we win and how we lose.”

With Chiney Ogwumike inching toward a return, the Sparks are close to their full team, but will be without Maria Vadeeva, who did not join the team after the Olympic break as planned.

Fisher called the situation “a little frustrating and disappointing” as the team saved a coveted roster spot for the Russian center. Vadeeva hasn’t played for the team that drafted her 11th overall in 2018 since 2019.

The absence opens a larger role for forward Lauren Cox, who joined the Sparks after Indiana cut the former No. 3 overall pick in June. With almost no practice time during her five-game stint with the Sparks before the break, the former Baylor star averaged 3.4 points and four rebounds per game. That’s just the beginning of what the two-time Big 12 Conference defensive player of the year wants to show Sparks fans.

“I take defense personally,” Cox said.

The break was especially beneficial for Cox as it gave her extra time to practice with the team after her trial-by-fire beginning. Players called it almost like a second training camp and the hiatus has restored hope for the Sparks roster that’s as healthy as it’s been since the end of May.

“That’s exciting to think about, the possibilities of what we as a team can still accomplish this season,” Fisher said. “We want to make a push to get into the playoffs … but the only way to get there is to take care of the business in front of us.”


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