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Under a new head coach, the Sparks are still learning how to close games

Poor execution in the fourth almost cost the Sparks against Washington, but coach Fred Williams was grateful for the learning experience.

WNBA: JUN 21 Washington Mystics at Los Angeles Sparks Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Sparks have played five home games this season, and four of them have been one-possession games in the final minute. Despite holding second-half double-digit leads in the three of those contests (against the Mercury, Wings, and Mystics), L.A. has allowed each of those teams a chance to tie or take the lead in the game’s waning moments.

The disturbing pattern reared its ugly head once again Tuesday against Washington, as the Sparks gave away most of a 14-point lead in in the last five minutes, and Natasha Cloud was at the line for three free throws to tie the game with 2.5 seconds to play. Cloud missed the second — reminiscent of Arike Ogunbowale a few weeks prior — as L.A. escaped, but the ending was much nervier than it should have been.

“I thought in the last three minutes, we really played some solid defense down the stretch of the shot clock, and then all of a sudden they hit a three and there’s a foul, and they kinda get themselves back in it,” head coach Fred Williams said postgame. “But the main thing for us is closing our games, and we closed this one out and came up with a W.

“I thought what hurt us was that we didn’t really close close enough on the three-point shots and that’s what got them back in it. Cloud hit a couple in there to make it happen for them and then all of a sudden, you got a two-point ball game or tie game, so I’m really proud that we hung in there, and it was a game experience for the young ladies.”

Washington Mystics v Los Angeles Sparks
During pregame, Fred Williams highlighted Natasha Cloud as the player the Sparks would have to contain. That proved prescient in the fourth.
Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

Surrendering 31 points in the fourth quarter shined a light on the Sparks’ defensive struggles late. And that was definitely part of the problem — going under on Cloud and losing Alysha Clark off an offensive rebound scramble are inexcusable errors. But there were also problems on offense, as bad process from L.A. led to turnovers, and the Mystics capitalizing on those giveaways.

Through three quarters, the Sparks looked really fluid on offense, the cleanest since the transition from Derek Fisher to Williams. The decision to mostly stagger Brittney Sykes and Jordin Canada helped maximize the team’s spacing, with at least one of Kristi Toliver, Lexie Brown, and Katie Lou Samuelson on the court at all times, and two for most minutes. Strong floor balance on offense meant that L.A. was better prepared in transition defense, and Washington only had four fast-break points in the first 30 minutes.

In the fourth, perhaps because Brown was limited with a sprained ankle, the Sparks ran more defense-first lineups that had limited to no spacing, specifically with Sykes and Canada together in the backcourt. Those two shared the court for 3:35, during which the Sparks were outscored by nine. In a related note, the team had six turnovers in the period that led to 13 Mystics points. The good process that L.A. had exhibited earlier in the game was nowhere to be found.

After Mike Thibault and Cloud were assessed technicals that allowed the Sparks to stretch their lead to 14, here’s how the subsequent offensive possessions for L.A. went:

  • bad pass from Canada to the roller Olivia Nelson-Ododa
  • Nelson-Ododa commits an offensive foul posting up (to be fair, this call is suspect)
  • Sykes pull-up jumper as Liz Cambage screens away her defender
  • Cambage offensive foul while clearing out Shakira Austin

Notice a player missing from any of those offensive sequences? How about All-Star starter Nneka Ogwumike, who only finished the game 9-of-13 from the field? The next three possessions all also excluded Ogwumike, as Canada had the ball in her hands each time, including an inexplicable isolation against Alysha Clark. As former Seattle Storm teammates, Canada should really know better.

Interestingly, even though L.A. was playing its best defensive backcourt, the defense still struggled to get stops. And with the Sparks unable to force turnovers, they couldn’t get into the open court for easy shots, where they had excelled earlier.

The good news is that L.A. had built enough of a cushion early to withstand the late Washington run. The Sparks depth proved superior — Chiney Ogwumike and Canada each had double-digit scoring efforts off the bench, and Nelson-Ododa even chipped in six. Starting Sykes helped limit Cloud and Ariel Atkins early (the pair had only 17 points before the fourth), and the home team was active in the passing lanes throughout, knowing that the Mystics would have to rely on ball movement without their isolation hub Elena Delle Donne.

L.A. was also able to turn to Nneka Ogwumike for the biggest plays of the game. The captain made herself available when the Sparks needed to inbound the ball up one with 10 seconds to play, and then she made both free throws. When Washington needed an offensive rebound to tie the game on Cloud’s last free throw, Ogwumike secured possession and ended the comeback.

As the rest of the team learns how to acquit itself in clutch situations, Ogwumike already knows how to get the job done. Relying on her more frequently could help the Sparks with some of their late-game execution woes.