LOS ANGELES – Fire up the engines on that charter plane. The Los Angeles Sparks are headed to Connecticut.
Facing a one-point game halfway through the third quarter, the rested and hungry Sparks made the most of their depth and their home court advantage for the next 14 minutes to put away the Seattle Storm 92-69 in the second-round of the WNBA Playoffs.
The Sparks reach the WNBA semifinals for the fourth time in the last five seasons after a come-one-come-all performance that showcased a degree of depth that the Sparks have been waiting for all season.
“I don’t think we thought of it as an elimination game,” said Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike after the Sparks won their 15th straight home game. “The pressure of knowing this could be your last game, it’s not the type of energy you want. We came out understanding we had to play hard.”
Before the game, head coach Derek Fisher – coaching in his first WNBA playoff game, not to mention his first single-elimination game – said he wasn’t looking to add a bunch of new plays, or try to be a different team in 40 minutes, even while playing on the razor’s edge of the end of the season.
“I think we have enough,” Fisher said.
That they did.
Enough Chelsea Gray, whose big shots in big moments further cemented her reputation as one of the league’s all-time clutch players. Gray finished with a game-high 21 points and eight assists.
Nneka Ogwumike, who accepted the Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award before tip-off, ended with 17 points and six rebounds. Candace Parker and Riquna Williams added 11 points each, Williams hitting the momentum-changer – a 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer to put L.A. up 69-58 heading into the final 10 minutes.
Sydney Wiese’s three 3-pointers, two of them in the final quarter, helped put the game out of reach.
Alana Beard, back to form after going in and out the lineup this season with injuries, and Chiney Ogwumike provided critical minutes off the bench.
L.A.’s defense held Seattle to three baskets in the final quarter.
“That’s been the tale of our team all season,” Nneka Ogwumike said. “Whether it was because we were down in numbers and certain people had to step up, or because people are out there taking advantage of time, we have been a team of moments, a team of opportunities. We are a team that grinds and that was reflective of the game today.”
Gray agreed, and said its rewarding to have a full, healthy roster at the most important time of the year.
“To be able to execute down the stretch, when your number is called,” Gray said. “Those are the things we are going to need down the stretch, it’s going to take everybody.”
Chiney Ogwumike said that the Sparks struggled earlier in the season when people tried to “do things by themselves.”
“We realize that our strength is when we do it together, when we move the ball,” Chiney said. “More moments than not today, we moved the ball and we are were ourselves, getting everybody involved.”
The Sparks will be taking on a second-seeded Connecticut team that is, in some ways, a mirror image of that. A team with depth and multiple scoring options. A team with brash guard play from Courtney Williams and Jasmine Thomas and the presence of versatile, veteran players such as Alyssa Thomas, Shekinna Stricklen and Jonquel Jones. The first two games of the best-of-five series will take place in Connecticut. The Sparks will play Game 3 away from their home floor in Long Beach on Sunday and then back to Staples Center for a potential Game 4 a week from Tuesday.
Asked whether the Sparks will need similar balance going into the next series, Candace Parker said, simply “One-hundred percent.”
Seattle’s defense of its 2018 championship comes to an end. But considering what the Storm faced this season – with MVP Breanna Stewart and legend Sue Bird missing the entire season with injuries, the cancer diagnosis of coach Dan Hughes, mid-season injuries to both Jewell Loyd and Jordin Canada – the Storm rallied valiantly.
Natasha Howard, the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, finished with 20 points. Loyd and Canada ended with 11 and 10 points respectively, but most of that damage was done in the first half.
Going 8-for-24 from beyond the arc hurt Seattle’s chances to advance.
Not having to play a first-round game, as it turned out, mattered greatly for the Sparks. And the lack of it got to the Storm.
“I thought we ran out of gas a little,” Storm coach Dan Hughes said. “I thought we played three good quarters and we really battled and a lot of the things we were hoping to achieve, we achieved.
“When you look at their depth, especially in the post, they keep constant pressure on you. We lost a little bit of the attack nature that had been serving us well for three quarters.”
The Sparks cleared out of Staples Center quickly, heading to the airport for a cross-country flight, a chance to stretch out and sleep on the plane, and an extra day to get acclimated to East Coast time.
“It’s great. It’s going to make a big difference,” Gray said.
Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs