LOS ANGELES – After starting the season 7-11, July has been kinder to the Los Angeles Sparks. They hope to keep that momentum going Thursday night against the Chicago Sky.
“I’m very proud of them,” Sparks interim coach Fred Williams said. “They’ve shown a lot of team character.”
The Sparks defeated the Phoenix Mercury 78-75 on the Fourth of July, capping off their third win in a row to start the month. It was also their third game in just four days. After two subsequent losses, they’re 3-2 in July.
The Sparks played in Dallas against the Wings on July 1, followed by back-to-back home games against the New York Liberty and Mercury.
“We just kind of said ‘Hey, the job’s got to get done,’” Sparks forward Nnaka Ogwunike said. “Someone’s go to play the games, so we might as well go out there and do our best against three great teams.”
“I’m happy we’re on a little streak,” Sparks center Liz Cambage said after the game against Phoenix. “I’m ready to keep it rolling all of July.”
The Sparks would have some time off until their next game, a 106-69 loss against the Seattle Storm. Despite the loss, the three days between home games followed by the break for the WNBA All-Star Game were welcome for the team to get some rest and hope to keep the momentum going.
“For us, it’s (been) more than a two-day series, we played in Dallas on Friday,” Ogwumike said. “Both Phoenix and New York were here (in Los Angeles) before us. We had a five-hour delay on the plane.”
Travel conditions for WNBA teams have been in the spotlight this season, as teams have sounded off on the league’s use of commercial flights and the difficulties they bring to players. Despite the delay limiting downtime in an already packed week, the Sparks players managed to rally and win both games of their back-to-back.
With just how condensed some games have been for the Sparks, it’s no wonder the players were so excited for their homestand.
“I’ve been waiting for this (since) before the season started,” Liz Cambage said. “I remember looking, in training camp looking at May, being like, ‘We just got to get to July.’”
Williams knew the game against Phoenix was likely going to be the toughest out of the three. He made sure the team stuck to their game plan and put as much pressure on Phoenix’s stars as possible.
“They’re just trying to bear down and get into people’s space,” Williams said. “That’s one thing I’ve been preaching with this team, is get into opponents’ space and be aggressive.”
The aggressiveness was on full display against the Mercury. Liz Cambage and Mercury forward Reshanda Gray picked up technical fouls at the 7:29 mark of the second quarter. After the game, Cambage was asked about how she managed her frustration.
“That’s like my whole game, being frustrated,” Cambage said. “Just another day in the office.”
After sharing a laugh with teammates Lexie Brown and Nneka Ogwumike, Cambage continued.
“My girls, my teammates keep me in check, keep me in line,” Cambage said. “We all had to play through things today. But yeah, we toughed it out and we got the win.”
The game against the Mercury had a noticeable physical element to it, with players from both teams having to play through apparent injuries. In the first quarter, Mercury guard Diamond DeShields was inadvertently struck on the side of the head while going after a loose ball. She remained on one knee for the remainder of the possession before making her way to the bench with a trainer.
In the second quarter, Sparks guard Lexie Brown left the game with a towel to her face after contact while going for a rebound. Both players would return to the game in the next quarter and finish the game with seven and 14 points, respectively.
The Sparks’ overall statistical performance has seen improvement since Williams took over from Derek Fisher in early June. They sit second in the WNBA’s Western Conference and fourth in the league in field goal percentage.
“It shows on the floor,” Williams said. “When they try to execute things on offense … defensively they’re just really stepping up as a team.”
Individual fatigue and flight delays aside, the Sparks have also had to deal with a significant amount of roster adjustment. The team would be without the services of Brittney Sykes, Rae Burrell, Kristi Toliver and Chennedy Carter for its game against the Mercury.
Because of this, the Sparks had to call up Kianna Smith as a replacement player.
“You got to stay ready, and today is just proof,” Liz Cambage said. “(Smith) came in ready, she came in fit, she played great (defense) … just hard work shown right there.”
Despite having Smith in as a replacement for the absent players, regulars would need to step up. Sparks point guard Jordin Canada played 33 minutes against the New York Liberty the day before, and she was expected to carry the load again against the Mercury.
Canada played more minutes than anyone on either team with 37:23, despite a field goal percentage of 21.4% and going 0 for 3 for 3-point attempts. For comparison, her field goal percentage in her first season with her hometown team has been 36.6%.
“I just told her to pace herself,” Williams said. “Don’t really challenge so much going into the paint … just pull up, shoot the jumper. Make or miss at least you got a shot out of it versus a turnover.”
It was clear why Williams had Canada play so much, despite her shooting struggles. Like teammate Lexie Brown mentioned, the Sparks have many shooting weapons, and Canada’s ball movement and dribbling abilities were on full display, drawing defenders.
There was a little extra off-court storytelling playing against the Mercury, as first-year coach Vanessa Nygaard coached Canada at Windward School in Mar Vista, California.
Despite having played against each other three times this season, Nygaard and Canada shared an extended embrace after the game. The Mercury have dealt with their own off-court hardships, none more pressing than the continued detainment of star player Brittney Griner, whose 4th of July letter to president Biden weighed heavily on Nygaard’s mind.
For both teams, the season has presented challenges. But with another month of games ahead, plenty can change.