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How Zaila Avant-garde helped the Sparks keep their playoff hopes alive

Sparks guard Te'a Cooper controls the ball against the Connecticut Sun on Sunday.
Sparks guard Te’a Cooper, shown here playing against the Connecticut Sun, scored 19 points off the bench against the Seattle Storm on Sunday night.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

It took a teenager to help the Sparks get their priorities straight Sunday night.

With the Sparks in the thick of a WNBA playoff race, spelling bee champion and budding basketball star Zaila Avant-garde joined the team for a two-day visit and gave a pregame pep talk before the regular-season home finale against the Seattle Storm.

Have fun, play hard and you can win the game, she told the Sparks.

Check, check and check.

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Needing a win to stay in playoff contention, the Sparks delivered one of their best performances of the season in an 81-53 rout of the reigning champion Storm. The Sparks, who have played at Staples Center just five times this season after starting their home slate at the Los Angeles Convention Center, gave their fans a celebratory sendoff, inspired by the presence of Avant-garde, 14.

The Sparks’ Brittney Sykes talks about the art of defense, which has made her a Sparks mainstay and a potential nominee for defensive player of the year.

“At the end of the day, it’s still just basketball,” said Sparks coach Derek Fisher, who allowed Avant-garde to sit next to him during the postgame news conference. “It’s your job, you’re fortunate to have a job, go out and play like it. To me, that’s what tonight was all about instead of us doing anything amazing from a strategic standpoint.”

The Sparks (11-19) still must win their last two regular-season games and get help from the No. 8 seed, the Washington Mystics (12-18), to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011. In addition to winning at Atlanta on Thursday and at Dallas next Sunday, the Sparks need the Mystics to lose at New York on Friday and at home against Minnesota next Sunday.

Highlights from the Sparks’ 81-53 victory over the Seattle Storm on Sunday.

The energy at Staples Center set the stage for a hot start by the Sparks, who took an 18-point halftime lead. From Te’a Cooper’s fire off the bench to guard Erica Wheeler crossing over Storm star Sue Bird so badly that the five-time Olympic gold medalist fell face first to the court, the team looked nothing like the squad that let Connecticut score 17 unanswered first-quarter points Thursday.

Fisher said he believed the team was too stressed by the tight playoff hunt during Thursday’s loss, but Avant-garde’s simple message helped the players feel free Sunday.

“I told my team since the beginning: It’s not about what happens, it’s about how it happens,” said Nneka Ogwumike, who scored 17 points. “If we focus on being present and doing it for each other and buying in, which is what Z said to us today, it shows.”

Cooper had 19 points, and Wheeler added 17. Guard Brittney Sykes anchored the Sparks’ standout defensive performance by limiting the Storm’s leading available scorer, Jewell Loyd, to five points.

The Sparks held Seattle (20-11), which was playing without star Breanna Stewart (foot), to a season low in points. The Storm’s previous low was 67. Bird scored just three points on one-for-seven shooting and went without an assist for the first time since 2012.


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