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Sparks limp into the offseason after playoff loss to Sun

By Thuc Nhi Nguyen, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Basketball

After securing a coveted first-round playoff bye, the Los Angeles Sparks cherished their hard-earned rest to prepare for a single-elimination game. Five days later, they were still resting.

The Sparks, who were without forward Nneka Ogwumike because of a migraine, disappointed in the second round of the WNBA playoffs Thursday, losing 73-59 to the seventh-seeded Connecticut Sun.

The Sun (11-12) advance to face the No. 1 Las Vegas Aces in the best-of-five semifinals beginning Sunday, while the Sparks (15-8) limp into the offseason after late-season injuries and a three-game losing streak.

"It's difficult when you can't channel that spirit or that fire or that performance anxiety to be able to execute the most basic fundamentals of playing the sport," Sparks coach Derek Fisher said. "When you're really, really fatigued and just having a hard time staying engaged mentally and physically, it catches up with you."

Candace Parker, who finished third in the most valuable player race, tried to carry her team with 22 points, 14 rebounds and five assists but was overwhelmed as all five Sun starters scored in double figures, including 17 points and 13 rebounds from DeWanna Bonner.

Only one other Sparks player - Riquna Williams with 10 points - scored in double digits.

"We can talk about defense and that's what you're supposed to do. But it's our offense," said Parker, whose team scored a season-low eight points in the first quarter. "We didn't score. ... We've sucked the last three games."

Chelsea Gray, who averaged 21 points for the Sparks in two regular-season wins against the Sun, finished with just four points and no assists. It was the first time the point guard was held without an assist since 2016, when she was coming off the bench during the Sparks' championship run.

With Gray at the helm, Parker healthier than she'd been in years and Ogwumike back, the Sparks had similar title aspirations this year. In the offseason, they added Seimone Augustus, a four-time champion. Even after Kristi Toliver and Chiney Ogwumike opted out of the pandemic-stricken season, the Sparks finished second in the AP preseason poll.

 

Yet the veteran-laden team collapsed down the stretch as injuries to Sydney Wiese (ankle) and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt (shoulder) piled up. Ogwumike's late scratch Thursday came at the worst time when the Sparks had just 40 minutes to save their season in a single-elimination game.

Without Ogwumike this season, the Sparks were 1-4 with the only victory coming against the Dallas Wings, a team that didn't make the playoffs. The Sparks padded their record with nine straight wins in the middle of the season, but were 4-6 against teams with winning records.

During the second half Thursday, with his team unable to inch closer than 14 points, Fisher implored his players to show more energy. Their season was on the line, he said. They were playing as if they were holding back, like waiting for the next game or preparing for their overseas careers.

Whatever the Sparks were waiting for, they can turn their attention to that, because their responsibilities in the WNBA bubble are over.

Lynx 80, Mercury 79: Crystal Dangerfield, hours after being named rookie of the year, scored 15 of her 17 points in the second half to help Minnesota advance to the WNBA semifinals. Dantas added 22 points with eight rebounds as the Lynx survived a last-second heave by Phoenix's Skylar Diggins-Smith. The Lynx will face No. 2 Seattle in the semis.

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(Nguyen reported from Los Angeles.)

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