Sparks’ Kristi Toliver nets NBA assistant coaching job in Dallas

A coach on the floor, a coach on the sideline, a coach is a coach is a coach.

Sparks point guard Krisit Toliver is primed to join the Dallas Mavericks as an assistant coach, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and confirmed by Toliver herself Thursday after her team’s 66-64 victory Thursday over the Atlanta Dream.

“First I want to congratulate us for winning this game,” said Toliver after the Sparks’ third consecutive victory. “As far as (head coach) Jason (Kidd) and the Mavs, super excited. It is a great opportunity that I’m excited to be about — to be a part of. Jason, obviously, as a player, Hall of Famer, great coach and somebody that I’m gonna learn a lot from. Him and the entire staff.

“I’m just happy for the opportunity to be back in the NBA and then continue to grow as a coach in that position. I still have a lot to learn, but I’ll continue to be that sponge and offer all I can to that team. Obviously excited to be alongside Luka (Doncic) and company, great team, great players, just couldn’t be more thankful for the opportunity.

Toliver — who is signed on with the Sparks through 2022 — also spent parts of two seasons on the Washington Wizards’ coaching staff while she was a member of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics.

“Kristi, we’re just happy for her,” said Derek Fisher, the former Laker star who’s in his third season coaching the Sparks. “She’s very very intentional about her love and passion for the game, and continue to be a part of it in a major way and to have an opportunity like that in Dallas is amazing, it’s great.

“And I think the growth and the evolution of coaching and teaching and hopefully us continuing to get beyond labels in terms of gender and color and we’re just all trying to do right by the game of basketball. And Kristi is that type of player, that type of person and I think she’s gonna be a great coach as well.”

Toliver, 34, has won WNBA titles with the Sparks and Mystics. This season, her 12th in the WNBA, she’s averaging 9.5 points in 16 games for the Sparks. It was her buzzer-beating 15-foot fadeaway that sent Tuesday’s game to overtime.

“Maaan, first of all they would’ve been crazy if they didn’t give her that job,” said Nneka Ogwumike, a native Texan who joked that she and Toliver would be neighbors in the winter, with Dallas just four hours away from her home in Houston.

“Being able to play with a player like Kristi is amazing because you’re playing with a coach,” Ogwumike said. “And so I do a lot of asking questions when it comes to the things that she sees. On both ends of the court, she really lives up to what she teaches.”

Toliver says her position — point guard, like Fisher and Kidd — has helped prepare her to coach.

“We’re in the unique position where we have to see the game,” she said. “We have to know every position, we have to be able to tell our teammates where to be, the timing of things, I think it’s just overall IQ. We’re just, we are the coach on the floor and I think it’s just a natural thing for point guards to be coaching in leadership positions just because that’s who we have to be for our team night in and night out.”

The night-in, night-out part of never changes, Toliver said, promising she’ll bring the same mindset to Dallas.

“My job is to help our team get better every day, you know?” said Toliver, who starred in college at Maryland. “All the specifics, that’ll take care of itself. I’m just looking forward to getting there and getting around the team and things just naturally happen, I just let things flow as they should and we’ll see … the No. 1 job always is to get the team better and pursue a championship.”

For the record, Ogwumike said she plans to require Toliver’s championship pursuit to be two-pronged for a while longer.

“It’s obviously an honor to always play with K-Tizzle,” said Ogwumike, who played with Toliver on the 2016 Sparks team that won the WNBA title. “And, you know, I just want to keep winning with her. I want her to obviously shine as a coach, but she can’t stop being a player for me.

“Not till I say so.”

Thank you all for the love and support entering this new journey with the @dallasmavs. So thankful for this opportunity and can’t wait to get to work. #MAVS

— Kristi Toliver (@KristiToliver) August 20, 2021

#LASparks guard and now new @dallasmavs assistant Kristi Toliver speaks about how excited she is to work with head coach Jason Kidd and have the opportunity to coach Luka Doncic @NitecastMedia

Of course she was also very happy with tonight’s win for her team pic.twitter.com/WIC0J5VeBg

— Chris Camello (@Chris_Camello) August 20, 2021

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Sparks outlast Indiana Fever in return to Staples Center

  • The Los Angeles Sparks before the first half of a WNBA basketball game against the Indiana Fever at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, August 15, 2021. (Photo by Libby Cline-Birmingham, Contributing Photographer)

  • Center Amanda Zahui B #1 of the Los Angeles Sparks takes a shot over forward Emma Cannon #32 of the Indiana Fever in the first half of a WNBA basketball game at the Staples center in Los Angeles on Monday, August 16, 2021. (Photo by Libby Cline-Birmingham, Contributing Photographer)

  • Center Amanda Zahui B #1 of the Los Angeles Sparks takes a free-throw in the first half of a WNBA basketball game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Monday, August 16, 2021. (Photo by Libby Cline-Birmingham, Contributing Photographer)

  • Guard Kristi Toliver #20 of the Los Angeles Sparks drives past guard Tiffany Mitchell #25 of the Indiana Fever in the first half of a WNBA basketball game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Monday, August 16, 2021. (Photo by Libby Cline-Birmingham, Contributing Photographer)

  • Guard Erica Wheeler #17 of the Los Angeles Sparks takes a shot over forward Jessica Breland #51 of the Indiana Fever in the first half of a WNBA basketball game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Monday, August 16, 2021. (Photo by Libby Cline-Birmingham, Contributing Photographer)

  • Guard Tiffany Mitchell #25 of the Indiana Fever looks to pass as forward Nia Coffey #12 of the Los Angeles Sparks guards in the first half of a WNBA basketball game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, August 15, 2021. (Photo by Libby Cline-Birmingham, Contributing Photographer)

  • Forward Teaira McCowan #15 of the Indiana Fever blocks forward Nneka Ogwumike #30 of the Los Angeles Sparks shot in the first half of a WNBA basketball game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Monday, August 16, 2021. (Photo by Libby Cline-Birmingham, Contributing Photographer)

  • Head Coach Derek Fisher of the Los Angeles Sparks reacts in the first half of a WNBA basketball game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, August 15, 2021. (Photo by Libby Cline-Birmingham, Contributing Photographer)

  • In the first half of s WNBA basketball game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, August 15, 2021. (Photo by Libby Cline-Birmingham, Contributing Photographer)

  • Sparky the Los Angeles Sparks mascot has fun with a young fan during a time out in the first half of a WNBA basketball game against the Indiana Fever at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Monday, August 16, 2021. (Photo by Libby Cline-Birmingham, Contributing Photographer)

  • Guard Erica Wheeler #17 of the Los Angeles Sparks looses the ball as she makes contact with forward Teaira McCowan #15 of the Indiana Fever in the first half of a WNBA basketball game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Monday, August 16, 2021. (Photo by Libby Cline-Birmingham, Contributing Photographer)

  • Center Amanda Zahui B #1 of the Los Angeles Sparks drives to the basket past guard Kelsey Mitchell #0 of the Indiana Fever in the first half of a WNBA basketball game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Monday, August 16, 2021. (Photo by Libby Cline-Birmingham, Contributing Photographer)

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LOS ANGELES — The Sparks’ first game at Staples Center since Sept. 15, 2019 proved a happy homecoming after they eked out a 75-70 victory Sunday to extend their winning steak in the building to 16 games — dating back to June 27, 2019.

Another return of some significance: Nneka Ogwumike’s.

The six-time All-Star forward finished with 12 points — including the final bucket of the night, to punctuate the victory — and seven rebounds in 31 minutes of work in her first game since June 1, when she injured her right knee in the Sparks’ loss to Dallas.

That was one of 13 defeats in a trying, injury-plagued first half for the Sparks, who were also had to contend with injuries to Kristi Toliver (eye), Chiney Ogwumike (knee) and Jasmine Walker (ACL).

Toliver was back Sunday, too, chipping in with four points and six assists to help put away the last-place-but-stubborn Indiana Fever.

Sunday’s game was both team’s first game in about a month following the WNBA’s Olympic pause. The rust was apparent: The Sparks shot 43.9% (29-66) and committed 15 turnovers; the Fever hit just 33.3% (24-72) of their attempts and had 15 turnovers.

In a frigid third quarter, the Fever scored just 13 points — three more than the Sparks.

The Sparks (7-13) came through the grind-it-out gut check, holding last-place Indiana (4-17) to just three points in the final 3:39 to escape with a victory.

Ogwumike put the finishing touch on the win after Brittney Sykes corralled a loose ball beneath Indiana’s basket with five seconds to play and spotted her streaking ahead upcourt, with no one between her and the basket. Sykes hit her in stride for the layup just ahead of the buzzer.

Ogwumike turned, fists clenched, and let out a yell as her teammates ran to embrace her.

“I mean, that’s like a perfect way to end the game,” Sykes said. “It’s Nneka and KT’s first game back. Nneka did her thing — you had to have watched how she just battled while she was out and to see her on the court, she deserved that layup.”

“To be honest,” said Ogwumike. “I knew it was the end of the game, but I just wanted to finish the game. I’m just really glad that slim passed that to me, because I would’ve looked really stupid if she didn’t.

“For me it’s just kind of symbolic of me finishing things out, you know? Just wanting to savor every moment. I’m glad she passed it to me, because I wanted to put my stamp on that game, with the energy that hopefully my team felt.”

Beside Ogwumike’s output, Sykes had 16 points — which pushed her career tally to 1,500, a milestone that snuck up on her, she said postgame.

And Amanda Zahui B. battled for 13 points and nine rebounds while former Fever standout Erica Wheeler gave L.A. 12 points and six assists in the Sparks’ return “home,” as Ogwumike called it, to Staples Center, where a spirited crowd of 2,029 was on its feet late.

“Staples, man, the fans? Ridiculous,” Sykes said, noting that people were in their seats an hour before the game to watch the Sparks warm up. “The energy is so infectious. I’m not one to talk to the crowd or point to the crowd, but it’s like you get to Staples and you hear everybody yelling your name, it’s like, ‘I see y’all!’

“You just want to recognize them because it’s genuine love. They love being here. Them fans, man. Them fans. Shout out to them.”

Off the bench, Nia Coffey and Te’a Cooper scored nine points apiece.

The Sparks’ homestand continues with two games against Atlanta (6-14) on Tuesday and Thursday.

What a duo 🥶@BrittBundlez @nnekaogwumike secure the dub for the @LASparks #CountIt pic.twitter.com/CDXjvXDqNL

— WNBA (@WNBA) August 16, 2021

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Sparks fail to break losing streak before Olympic break

LOS ANGELES — Make it six. The Sparks haven’t tasted victory in 17 days, and now they’ll have to wait another month to break the WNBA’s longest current losing streak of six games.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Lynx stayed hot, continuing the league’s longest winning streak to seven with a 86-61 victory Sunday.

By the end of it, the crowd of 892 at Los Angeles Convention Center grew eerily silent in the last game before they return to Staples Center.

From the tip the Lynx carried the momentum taking a 16-point lead in the first quarter shooting 80% from the field while the Sparks shot 27.8%. Minnesota cooled off slightly, finishing the game shooting 55.9%.

“The one thing you can’t question is our effort, we’re down bodies and we’re still trying to get it done,” Sparks guard Erica Wheeler said.

Napheesa Collier scored a game-high 27 for the Lynx. The third-year forward will play in her first Olympics as the WNBA breaks for the summer games.

Sparks backcourt Wheeler (14 points, 6 assists) and Brittney Sykes (14) led the team in scoring.

Los Angeles started the third-quarter on a 6-0 run cutting the lead to once 18 point lead down to six, but the Lynx responded to the Sparks attempts to get back into the game later taking their largest lead (28) in the fourth quarter.

The Sparks have had a myriad of comebacks, but have only come out the victor once – May 28 when Nneka Ogwumike was still on the floor playing with the team.

“In a way we’ve won a lot of these games for ourselves,” Sykes said. “We just we just gotta keep going, you gotta keep fighting.”

The Sparks fell in a similar fashion to the Lynx last month 80-64 after overcoming a 17 point deficit.

Sunday’s game mirrored the first matchup’s chippiness. Technical fouls were called on both the Sparks (Wheeler, Bria Holmes) and Lynx (coach Cheryl Reeve) along with one flagrant foul on Minnesota. The home crowd lamented over missed and hard fouls.

The Lynx scored 20 points off 15 Los Angeles turnovers, typically a strongsuit of the Sparks. Minnesota also asserted their dominance outscoring the Sparks 44-30 in the paint.

Sparks coach Derek Fisher said there’s a level of physicality when playing the Lynx, but ultimately Minnesota got what they wanted as they continue to climb the WNBA standing ranks.

After the final buzzer rank, crew members in the convention center’s west hall began to disassemble the purple and gold court created solely for the early part of the season.

For the last time before the break, the Sparks played without three starters. Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike (knee) along with Kristi Toliver (eye) sat on the Sparks bench cheering on their teammates.

“It’s not that we assume that we’re just going to magically be better because people are back, but I think we’re excited about the opportunity,” Fisher said.

The Sparks will return August 15 perhaps the most healthy they’ve been all season.

“We’re right there,” Sykes said. “We have our foundation, and now it’s time to build on that foundation and keep going.”

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Sparks can’t close out WNBA-best Aces

  • Sparks guard Brittney Sykes reacts after committing a shot clock violation during the second half of Friday night’s game against the Las Vegas Aces at the L.A. Convention Center. The Aces won, 66-58. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage, left, tries to shoot as Los Angeles Sparks forward Lauren Cox defends during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. The Aces won 66-58. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Sparks forward Lauren Cox, left, shoots as Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage defends during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Sparks guard Arella Guirantes, below, and Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum battle for a loose ball during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Las Vegas Aces guard Chelsea Gray, left, drives toward the basket as Los Angeles Sparks guard Brittney Sykes defends during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. The Aces won 66-58. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Sparks forward Lauren Cox, left, shoots as Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson defends during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson, top, shoots as Los Angeles Sparks forward Nia Coffey defends during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. The Aces won 66-58. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Sparks guard Te’a Cooper, left, knocks the ball away from Las Vegas Aces guard Chelsea Gray during the first half of Friday night’s game at the L.A. Convention Center. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Sparks guard Brittney Sykes, right, shoots as Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage defends during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson, right, shoots as Los Angeles Sparks forward Lauren Cox defends during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. The Aces won 66-58. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Las Vegas Aces guard Jackie Young, left, grabs a rebound away from Los Angeles Sparks forward Lauren Cox during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Raiders owner Mark Davis attends a WNBA basketball game between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Las Vegas Aces Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Las Vegas Aces guard Chelsea Gray, right, tries to drive by Los Angeles Sparks guard Brittney Sykes during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

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The Sparks went toe-to-toe with the WNBA’s hottest team on Friday night, overcoming a 12-point second-half deficit to take a fourth-quarter lead before falling just short.

Reigning WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson had 20 points and 10 rebounds and the league-leading Las Vegas Aces closed on a 12-2 run to beat the Sparks, 66-58, at the L.A. Convention Center.

The Aces (13-4) had defeated the Sparks (6-10) by 20-plus points twice this season, including a 99-75 setback just two nights earlier.

“To see the way the group was fighting on defense, coming back after Wednesday night just says a lot about our players,” Sparks coach/GM Derek Fisher said. “They wanted to come back and have each other’s back tonight.”

Las Vegas had its largest lead at 46-34 in the middle of the third quarter, but the Sparks scored eight straight points in the middle of the fourth to take a 56-54 lead.

Former Spark Chelsea Gray tied it at 56 with a 12-foot jumper and Riquna Williams, another former Spark, made a left corner 3-pointer with 1:53 left, her first basket of the game, to make it 63-58.

Gray finished with 14 points and star center Liz Cambage had 10 to help the Aces remain tied with the Seattle Storm atop the WNBA standings.

Erica Wheeler scored 15 points for the Sparks (6-10), while Amanda Zahui B. had 14 points and 12 rebounds.

The Sparks got stingy on defense, held Vegas well below its scoring average and were able to contain Cambage but Wilson helped close out the game with five free throws down the stretch.

“We want to be disruptive, we want to make our opponent uncomfortable,” Fisher said before the game, and his players responded with five steals and six blocked shots (four by Nia Coffey).

After getting outrebounded by 16 on Wednesday, the Sparks held the Aces to a 34-33 edge on the boards in the rematch.

Fisher said it took a concerted effort by all five positions considering Vegas leads the league in rebounding (38.5 per game) while the Sparks sit at the bottom (29.9).

The arena was perhaps the loudest it has been all season with a sold-out crowd of 959, getting particularly enthusiastic when the Sparks took their fourth-quarter lead.

“We feel that energy so when it does get loud, it does give us an extra boost,” Wheeler said. “We definitely fed off that.”

Veteran guard Kristi Toliver missed her third straight game with an eye injury sustained after getting hit in the face, and the Ogwumike sisters continue to recover from knee issues that have kept them out for several weeks.

To fill the injury gaps, the Sparks signed Lauren Cox on Wednesday after the Indiana Fever waived her earlier this week. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 draft, she had five points in a career-high 20 minutes in her Sparks debut.

Cox first met her new teammates shortly before Wednesday’s game, then had her first shootaround Friday morning, giving her a chance to get some practice with the team. She helped the Sparks cut the Aces’ points in the paint from 52 on Wednesday to 32 on Friday.

“This team has just been great for me,” she said. “The leadership that this team has and, like I said, just talking me through things, has made things a lot easier.”

Fisher said before the game that they weren’t discouraged after Wednesday’s loss and that they were ready to empty the tank against the same opponent. They’ll hope to put together a similar effort on Sunday when they face Seattle.

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