Ten days after beating the Seattle Storm by 34 points, the Sparks once again welcomed the defending WNBA champions to Staples Center. The stakes were higher, with the winner of the single-elimination playoff game booking a trip to the semifinals.
The result Sunday was the same: a resounding Sparks victory, this time by a score of 92-69.
Sparks coach Derek Fisher has tinkered with his lineups all year, digging deep into his bench in key moments. At times it’s been strategic, and at other times it’s been out of necessity as the team lost players to injuries, overseas commitments and even a suspension.
On Sunday, in the biggest game of the year, it paid off in full.
The Sparks’ stars shone bright as usual, with point guard Chelsea Gray netting a game-high 21 points and eight assists, while center Candace Parker had 11 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. But Seattle’s stars were able to match.
It was the role players who turned a close game into a blowout.
After a close first half, L.A. found its rhythm in the second half, keyed by a few plays. Guard Riquna Williams hit a running three-pointer to beat the third-quarter buzzer, giving the Sparks a nine-point lead amid a buzzing Staples Center.
Minutes later, reserve Sydney Wiese hit threes on consecutive possessions, and the route was on. Alana Beard and Chiney Ogwumike brought shut-down defense off the bench, stifling Seattle’s scorers in the final frame. The two played only 17 minutes apiece, but the Sparks outscored the Storm by 30 in Beard’s minutes, and by 29 in Ogwumike’s.
“That’s kind of been the tale of our team this season,” said All-Star forward-center Nneka Ogwumike, who had 17 points and six rebounds. “Whether it was because we were down numbers and certain people had to step up, or because there’s just people out there that are taking advantage of their time. We’re a team of moments. We’re a team of opportunities. We’re a team that grinds.”
The Sparks know their best players need to perform if they want to end the season hoisting a trophy. They also know the less-heralded ones can make the difference on any given day.
L.A.’s reserves scored 27 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Seattle’s bench had just 13 points and one rebound.
“We ran out of gas a little bit,” Storm coach Dan Hughes ceded. “I think it’s a little bit of a testimony to their depth. … They keep constant pressure on you.”
Just hours after the WNBA announced it would charter cross-country flights for the winners of Sunday’s second-round games, the Sparks were boarding a plane, headed for Connecticut. A five-game series with the Sun awaits, and L.A. is arriving with a four-game winning streak, an offense that’s firing on all cylinders, and a roster as confident as it is deep.