A year ago, the Sparks season ended in Dallas, a one-possession loss in a de facto elimination game that could have sent the team to the playoffs but instead sent them home. It was the culmination of a season sweep by the Wings that included a blowout win in the opener and the game when Nneka Ogwumike got injured, derailing her 2021 campaign and her Olympic hopes.
Dallas came to Los Angeles Tuesday for the two teams’ first meeting of 2022, and it was clear that the team’s dramatic 93-91 win meant more than most: it was an opportunity for the Sparks to show exactly how they’ve improved from lottery finish last season, something they weren’t shy about admitting.
Brittney Sykes said postgame that L.A. had this game circled on its calendar, echoing her head coach’s pregame comments.
“I think this Dallas team is a catalyst to why our team looks so different this year, to be honest,” Derek Fisher said. “The way we felt after the final regular-season buzzer went off and we were one possession from being able to play in the postseason wasn’t all related to Dallas, but just the feeling of being so close and yet so far and a reminder of the world that we would have to do in order to get better.”
The primary area of improvement the Sparks targeted during the offseason was on the offensive side of the ball, being able to score efficiently. They put up 93 points in the win, a total they only eclipsed once last season, when they averaged 74.7 against Dallas. They shot 64.3 percent from the field, eight percentage points higher than their best offensive outing last season.
With a dominant post hub in Liz Cambage, and credible spacing threats in Lexie Brown and Katie Lou Samuelson, the Sparks have so many more ways to score. They can dump the ball into Cambage — she was 7-of-10 from the field for 19 points; they can work the hi-lo with two bigs, as Nneka Ogwumike chipped in 16 of her own; they can kick out to Brown and Samuelson, who drained all three of the team’s triples; or they can leverage that spacing for their downhill attackers.
Getting into the paint at all costs is the part of the Sparks ethos that still fits in with last year’s team. But while the 2021 group met a crowd whenever they attacked the basket, this team has clearly benefited from the extra space, no one more so than Sykes Tuesday. Sykes made 56.4 percent of her twos in her first year with the Sparks as defenses keyed in on Ogwumike, Candace Parker, and Chelsea Gray. That number fell to 42.4 percent last season. Against the Wings, Sykes got into the paint at will, using high screens and give-and-gos as well as just blowing by her defender in isolation. She converted 7-of-8 shots at the basket and earned 11 free throws in the process for 25 points, her highest total as a Spark.
Those 11 trips to the foul line were another targeted area of improvement for Fisher and the Sparks. L.A. was ninth in the league in free-throw rate in 2021, earning .237 free throws per field-goal attempt. That rate has jumped to .340 this season, and the Sparks are canning nearly 80 percent of their attempts. Against Dallas, L.A. got to the line 25 times, well above last year’s average of 15.6 free throws per game.
Some improvements have yet to come for the Sparks. Despite the influx of size at nearly every position, defensive rebounding issues persist. The worst defensive rebounding team in the league a year ago has improved only marginally, collecting two percent more of the opposing team’s misses. The Wings exploited that weakness, collecting 12 offensive rebounds compared to two for the home team; that led to a 18-4 advantage in second-chance points.
L.A. has also yet to figure out its crunch-time offense. The team succeeded by putting the ball into Erica Wheeler’s hands a year ago and letting her run pick-and-roll, but no similar point guard exists on the 2022 roster. That means more of a reliance on specific sets, which is a challenge for a team that has yet to have a practice with its full starting lineup. The Sparks have been in clutch situations in nine of 11 games, including against Dallas, and they’re a net neutral through 31 minutes.
They managed to outscore the Wings by three points in the final five minutes. A 19-point swing saw Dallas take its first lead of the game in the fourth quarter, and the Wings led 83-80 with 4:50 to play, but a scuffle between Chiney Ogwumike and Satou Sabally lit a fire under the Sparks once more. Fisher had said that the Sparks would have to dig deep against a team that was more fresh, and that incident inadvertently got the home squad back on track.
“It aligned our focus, yeah, it really did,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “In that moment, it’s like one of those things where we’re not backing down.”
When the Sparks faced adversity against the Wings last year, they were unable to punch back. They didn’t really have the horses to make it an even fight. Now, L.A. has some more firepower and a better plan of attack, one that was on display Tuesday, a plan that held up on the team’s fifth game in nine nights.
At 5-6, there’s no reason to celebrate yet. But there are several goals the Sparks hoped to achieve this season, and they’ve at least accomplished one. Now that they can measure up to the Wings, the rest of the playoff teams are within closer reach.