LOS ANGELES--Can we elect two Sixth Women of the Year? And can they both be from the same team? If so, my vote goes to Jantel Lavender and Chelsea Gray after tonight’s performance.
Lavender and Gray, along with MVP-hopeful Nneka Ogwumike, led the Sparks in a 90-85 victory over the Phoenix Mercury to snap Los Angeles’ three-game losing streak.
OK—I get it, there can’t be two Sixth Women. Fine. My vote goes to Lavender, then.
Lavender contributed 17 points off the bench, shooting eight for nine from the field. She shot with conviction and without hesitation, and brought her usual energy to the floor. There’s no question she is a front-runner in this race.
“A [sixth woman] is about consistency, and bringing energy on a consistent basis, knowing your role, and knowing what type of player you are,” Lavender said. “It’s a lot of mental that goes into it, but I’ve just been trying to be that throughout the whole season—just come in and make the game a little more exciting with whatever I can do.”
Even more fitting for Gray, instead, is Most Improved.
Los Angeles has never looked worse, yet Gray has never looked better.
Before tonight, the Sparks lost three in a row, and five of eight since the Olympic break, after going 21-3 before the hiatus.
During this rocky time, Gray remained a steady force. She reached 20 points for the first time against the No. 1 Minnesota Lynx on Sept. 6, a game-high 16 points against the Atlanta Dream on Sept. 8 and 13 points against the Seattle Storm on Sept. 11.
Fear not superstitious fans—the Sparks’ win did not damper Gray’s fire. In fact, the victory poured on even more gasoline. She posted a career-high 23 points shooting 80 percent from the field in 24 minutes. She remained perfect until midway through the fourth quarter.
To put her explosive improvement in perspective, Gray notched 182 points total thus far. Seventy-two of these points were earned in the last four games. That’s 40 percent! I repeat: 40 percent of her season points were earned in just four games!
“I haven’t changed anything,” Gray said when asked about game preparation. “My teammates have been very supportive, and that’s what’s getting me to this point and playing this well.”
Gray confided that she, Lavender and the rest of the bench have a pregame mantra they recite to one another.
“Before every game, we say, ‘Bench Power,’” she said. “We just have to bring something into the game each time we step on the court.”
Lavender noted the success that occurs when she plays with Gray.
“Before the Olympic break, we played a lot together. That was when we were winning games easily,” she said. “I think that getting back to that going into this championship run is what our team needs. We need to have that confidence that we’re going to have scoring off the bench, and with Chelsea’s play tonight and some of the looks that I got, I think it was awesome.
“We need to continue that going into the playoffs.”
Although Lavender laughed about their pre-game mantra, it’s no joking matter. Looking ahead to playoffs and a possible Championship run, Los Angeles must rely on that depth and its “Bench Power” to win.