At practices and before games, the Sparks don’t only scout their next opponent. In the thick of a tight playoff race, the team also breaks down its ever-changing playoff hopes.
“We know our chances are somewhere about 1% or 2%,” interim head coach Fred Williams said Sunday before a must-win game at Washington. “But as long as you got a percent there, we’re going to go for it.”
The Sparks’ 79-76 win over the playoff-bound Mystics helped keep their slim postseason chances alive, but they remain on the razor’s edge entering the final homestand of the regular season. With two games left against playoff-bound Connecticut and the regular-season finale against playoff-hopeful Dallas, the Sparks (13-20) are one game out of the playoff race, yet buried at 11th in the standings and likely need to win out.
Sixth-place Dallas (16-16) has moved comfortably ahead in the race with a 2 1/2-game lead on Atlanta and Phoenix, which are tied at 14-19. New York (13-19) and Minnesota (13-20) remain ahead of the Sparks in the crowded race. Since only the Indiana Fever have been eliminated from playoff contention, each team chasing a postseason spot has multiple games against playoff-bound teams or contenders.
Of the four other teams in the mix for the final two postseason spots, the Sparks only claim the head-to-head tiebreaker against Phoenix. Atlanta, New York and Minnesota each went 2-1 against the Sparks during the regular season.
The congested playoff race put even more significance on the Sparks’ recent four-game road trip as it decided the season series against New York and Atlanta. Letting their losing streak stretch to six, including a back-to-back sweep in New York and a heartbreaking loss to Atlanta, nearly ended the Sparks’ playoff chances.
Cheyenne Parker’s baseline drive in Atlanta with 0.3 seconds remaining looked like it was going to be the deciding blow of the Sparks’ disappointing season, a loss too deflating to recover from. Yet with their postseason hanging in the balance, the Sparks punched back Sunday to finish the difficult road trip with a confidence-boosting victory.
Brittney Sykes scored 21 points and the Los Angeles Sparks kept their slim playoff hopes alive Sunday with a 79-76 win over the Washington Mystics.
“No matter what our circumstances are, no matter how many we’re trying to get back when it comes to winning games, we always go out there and we compete and play hard, and I think that’s really what keeps us going,” Nneka Ogwumike said after finishing with 15 points and six rebounds against Washington. “We don’t have people that are quitting.”
Sunday’s victory was the team’s first since center Liz Cambage abruptly left the team in a “contract divorce.” The acrimonious split and a lingering injury to Chiney Ogwumike, who has struggled with blurred vision since colliding with New York’s Rebecca Allen on Aug. 2, opened a larger role for rookie Olivia Nelson-Ododa.
The 6-foot-5 forward from Connecticut has started three consecutive games, including a career-best 10-rebound, four-block performance against the Liberty on Aug. 3, which she followed with 10 points against the Dream two days later. Nelson-Ododa had four points, five rebounds and two blocks against the Mystics and calmly sank two clutch free throws with 4.4 seconds remaining to help secure the win.
“She’s pretty much out of the rookie stage,” Williams said. “She’s more of a veteran now this portion of the season.”
Guard Brittney Sykes, who has scored in double figures for five straight games, noted the rookie’s fearlessness. Nneka Ogwumike said Nelson-Ododa “just gets it” in ways most rookies don’t.
“And she never complains,” guard Jordin Canada added. “She’s learning as she’s going, but you can just see the potential she has to be a really great post player.”
The second-round draft pick’s emergence offers hope for the Sparks’ future even if they don’t advance to the playoffs. The next steps of the franchise’s much-needed rebuild are hampered by roster instability left from former general manager and coach Derek Fisher.
Katie Lou Samuelson and Chennedy Carter are the only players on protected contracts for next season. Nelson-Ododa, fellow rookie Rae Burrell and second-year forward Jasmine Walker are on unprotected deals. Nneka Ogwumike, the franchise’s former No. 1 pick and longtime pillar, is one of six unrestricted free agents.
The WNBA is looking to increase revenues through a mixture of sponsorships and marketing so players like Brittney Griner don’t have to go overseas.
While Nneka Ogwumike expressed a desire to stay in L.A. when asked about her future after Fisher’s firing in June, the organization could struggle to build around the proven superstar. There is no draft lottery consolation prize for the Sparks if they miss the playoffs because they traded their 2023 first-round draft pick to Atlanta along with guard Erica Wheeler in the move that brought Carter to the team in February. The Dream then traded the pick to the Mystics.
Carter provided a glimpse of her scoring brilliance with 23 points in 20 minutes against the Mercury on July 28 but hasn’t found consistent footing with the Sparks. Despite the team’s short bench, Carter stayed on the sideline for the past three games because of what Williams called simply a “coach’s decision.”
Thuc Nhi Nguyen covers college sports and the NBA for the Los Angeles Times. She previously covered UCLA, professional soccer and preps for the Southern California News Group. Because she doesn’t use her University of Washington mathematics degree for work, it makes great decoration in her parents’ Seattle home.