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Evolving Sims Fits Right In With Sparks

For Odyssey Sims, it wasn’t so much changing her game, but a change of scenery that has put her on the verge of her first championship in the first postseason run of her career.

“So far, so good,” Sims said Saturday as the Los Angeles Sparks wrapped practice heading into Sunday’s Game 4 of the WNBA Finals. With a 2-1 series lead over Minnesota, L.A. could win a title at home in Staples Center on Sunday and become the first WNBA team since the Houston Comets to win four WNBA titles.

“From being in the starting lineup, to the playoffs, to being one game from a title, it doesn’t get better than this,” Sims said.

Hard to argue. Also hard to argue that Sims’ speedy, athletic game on both sides of the ball has been a catalyst for L.A.’s success in this follow-up season to last year’s championship. Sims has joined Chelsea Gray, last year’s breakout star in Los Angeles, to form one of the league’s most interesting – and dangerous – backcourt combinations. Gray has size, Sims has speed.

“Chelsea is a great player and she’s hard to guard and everyone knows that,” Sims said. “Going into tomorrow, our main focus is to keep the team together, to make sure we make plays down the stretch and that we get the ball to the players who need to have it.”

Sims’ first season is Los Angeles has been more about evolution than improvement.

“She’s a talent. She was talented before she got here,” said Sparks head coach Brian Agler. “Odyssey has the benefit of being around some great veteran players. Our veterans have spent a lot of time with her, helping her, talking with her. I think she’s going to keep evolving as she realizes that she can use her strengths to make her teammate better.”

The then-Tulsa Shock made Sims the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 WNBA draft behind Connecticut’s Chiney Ogwumike. The story was tailor-made, the Baylor star heading to Tulsa, close to the place where she made her name as a college basketball standout and the narrative got even better when the Shock moved to Texas and became the Dallas Wings.

Sims would be a home-grown star.

But, despite averaging 15.3 points a game, it was never quite a fit for Sims.

In February, Sims came to Los Angeles in a trade for the No. 4 pick, a deal that has worked out well for both teams. Sims has found her footing with the Sparks, while the Wings used that No. 4 pick on Allisha Gray, who was named the WNBA’s Rookie of the Year.

Los Angeles wanted Sims to replace Kristi Toliver, who left the Sparks following their title run as a free agent to play for the Washington Mystics.

Sims needed time to settle in. She knew she needed to improve defensively. Agler’s system in L.A. would demand it. Agler demanded it. Sims demanded it of herself.

“My teammates and my coaches pushed me to get better. They want me to get better, so I have been in the gym working on about…everything,” Sims said. “I’m learning every day. I’ve just absorbing everything and trying to use it on the court as much as I can.”

Sims broke out of the gate with a 20-point scoring effort in her Sparks debut, but then failed to score in double figures in 16 of her next 17 games.

The 25-year-old needed to change her game. She has reduced the number of 3-pointers she puts up. She works to get to the rim and she’s making the most of her time at the free-throw line, shooting 94.1 from the stripe.

Since July 28, when Sims put up 22 points in a road win over San Antonio, she has failed to score in double figures only twice.

“She’s brought kind of a new mentality to the team, a new attitude,” said forward Nneka Ogwumike. “You see how she plays, people can describe her as aggressive or relentless. For me, she’s got an inviting type of arrogance. I like that attitude.”

Agler said Sims is a confident player, which is a necessary trait to succeed in the WNBA.

“What we are trying to do is get her to dig deeper,” Agler said. “She wants to be good and she wants our team to be good. This is a new experience for her, but watching her play in the semifinals and in this championship series, I’ve never seen her be in awe. She feels she should be here.”

Gray and Sims have known each other since high school. Gray joked that she’s finally happy she doesn’t have to guard Sims. And that her backcourt mate inspires her to be better.

“I’ve seen her do some stuff and thought ‘I think I’m going to try that’,” Gray said. “And her defensive effort, on and off the ball, is so tremendous and it makes me want to match it.”

Sims averaged 18.3 points a game in the semifinal series against Phoenix, and put up 22 in the Game 3 that sent L.A. to the Final series. She’s averaging 15.3 points a game in the postseason overall.

“I’ve been going with the flow since I got here. Just trying to gel with my teammates, understand Brian,” Sims said. “I’m just trying to do what I can to help us get the win.”