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Who will step up for Sparks without Kristi Toliver during playoff push?

Sparks guard Kristi Toliver controls the ball during a game against the Dallas Wings.
Sparks guard Kristi Toliver controls the ball during a game against the Dallas Wings on May 14.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Here it goes again.

Already spending most of their season battling injuries, the Sparks got another unwelcome injury report Monday when guard Kristi Toliver was ruled out for two to three weeks because of a broken pinkie finger. It couldn’t have come at a worse time.

The injury sidelines the two-time WNBA champion for the final four games of the regular season as the Sparks (10-18) are trying to claw into playoff position.

Two playoff spots remain for four teams in the mix. The seventh-place Dallas Wings (12-17) pace the playoff hopefuls with a one-game lead after Tuesday night’s games. New York (11-18) is hanging on to the eighth seed, which would put the Liberty in the playoffs for the first time since 2017, and owns the tiebreaker against the ninth-place Washington Mystics (10-18).

The Sparks, who will play their final regular-season home games this week starting Thursday against the league-leading Connecticut Sun, are a half-game out of the playoffs.

Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike and the team’s former stars Candace Parker and Lisa Leslie are included in the debut of the WNBA’s W25 list.

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Knee injuries to Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike decimated the team’s frontcourt depth, but perhaps no one’s absence is as critical as Toliver’s. The Sparks are 0-9 without the guard this season.

Although the 34-year-old who missed time with an eye injury before breaking her finger is averaging 9.4 points and 2.8 assists per game — her lowest marks in a season since 2010 — her impact is reflected in advanced statistics, where the Sparks’ offensive rating falls from 94.3 with Toliver to 88.1 when she leaves the court. The 6.2-point drop is the second largest for a Sparks player, narrowly trailing Brittney Sykes’ 6.3-point difference.

“She has value for us any time she touches the court, and we miss that when she’s not out there,” coach Derek Fisher said. “But it’s just a part of that type of season in terms of the injuries and bumps and bruises, but with all that being said, we still have a chance.”

In danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011, the Sparks will try again to replace Toliver by committee. Guard Erica Wheeler’s responsibilities will grow even more after the former All-Star game most valuable player carried the team through injuries in the first half of the season. Younger players such as rookie Arella Guirantes and second-year guard Te’a Cooper are also in for larger roles as the postseason push intensifies.

The latest twist in the season doesn’t faze Cooper. She has already been Toliver’s unofficial replacement.

Sparks head coach Derek Fisher talks with guard Erica Wheeler and guard Te'a Cooper.
Sparks coach Derek Fisher, left, talks with guards Erica Wheeler, middle, and Te’a Cooper against the Las Vegas Aces on July 2.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

After getting cut by the Phoenix Mercury last year, a casualty of the pandemic that prohibited training camps, Cooper joined the Sparks when Toliver opted out of the bubble season. Cooper, the 18th draft pick in 2020, proved herself with strong on-ball defense while averaging seven points and two steals per game, mostly off the bench.

The circumstances of her first WNBA season were unprecedented, but they also offered a softer landing in the pros. There was no travel. No heckling crowds. Playing and soaking up knowledge from her teammates became a daily routine.

Finding the same rhythm has been difficult this season.

Cooper’s role shifts almost nightly from bench player (18 games) to starter (10 games). She’s traveling for the first time as a pro, discovering the quirks of each new arena and getting used to different atmospheres.

It’s as if she’s a rookie learning the league all over again.

“Sports is very inconsistent,” Cooper said. “You don’t know when your time is going to come, so honestly the biggest lesson here is to stay ready so you don’t gotta get ready.”

The Sparks’ losing woes continued on Thursday in the 66-57 loss to the Minnesota Lynx.

Cooper’s scoring has increased to 8.2 points, but her shooting has fallen nearly 10 percentage points from 45.1% as a rookie to 35.5%. Her free-throw attempts have increased by nearly two per game, resulting from her aggressive drives to the basket, but she’s often seen taking contested layups. She’s still trying to pick her spots better on offense, she said.

Cooper’s second year has been about trying to “be impactful in shorter stretches of minutes,” Fisher said, as she braces for more unexpected challenges.

“It’s really been asking her to trust her journey and know that and have the confidence that all that you may want right now, you don’t always get it right away,” Fisher said. “The great ones have an ability to delay their gratification and just keep doing the work.”


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