Their 21-point lead whittled down to two with 4:55 to play, the Los Angeles Sparks found themselves on the verge of a collapse against the Phoenix Mercury.
But all of a sudden, the Sparks’ defense settled back into place. First it was a Mercury turnover, then four missed shots by Phoenix, then another turnover, then another two misses.
By the time Phoenix scored again, the Sparks had forced eight straight stops and gone on a 6-0 run to create enough breathing room to hold on for an 83-74 win in Bradenton, Florida.
“We were just playing catch up and then we decided. We made the decision: we gotta lock down defensively, but also secure the board,” Sparks guard Chelsea Gray said. “We just decided to lock down defensively and execute on the offensive end as well.”
It marked the fifth win in a row for the Sparks (8-3), who had four of their five starters score in double figures. Gray, Candace Parker and Brittney Sykes scored 16 apiece, while Nneka Ogwumike added 10.
The Sparks’ offense got moving quickly behind the play of Parker. The All-Star forward has been picky about when she chooses to be assertive on offense this season. But she poured in 11 in the first quarter with a pair of 3-pointers.
“Our team really thrives when we push the ball in transition and I think it was just trying to attack the paint and getting in the paint early and making the smart decision, whether I was finishing or whether I was kicking out for open 3-point shooters,” said Parker, who added 12 rebounds and four assists.
A Seimone Augustus jumper at the end of the first gave the Sparks a 14-point advantage, and Mercury guard Diana Taurasi spiked the ball in frustration as the teams headed to their benches.
But the second quarter did little to alleviate Phoenix’s frustrations. A dozen first-half turnovers kept the Mercury from going on any substantive run. Phoenix’s three leading scorers — Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith — combined to go 3 for 15 from the floor in the first half as the Sparks built a 16-point halftime advantage.
“We played with more force and really took them out of a lot of the things they were trying to get accomplished offensively,” Sparks coach Derek Fisher said.
But the defensive effort didn’t hold up over the course of the game for the Sparks. The Mercury finished shooting 43.9% from the floor and made one third of their 21 attempts from 3-point range. If not for the Mercury’s 17 turnovers — 12 of which came on Sparks steals — the outcome could have been different.
Taurasi went on to make four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to spur the Mercury comeback attempt. But when the time came, the Sparks’ defense was able to create enough stops to hold on for the win, and to secure a season sweep of the Mercury.
Though, the Sparks noted, that final defensive effort only came out of desperation with a win slipping away, an issue that the team wants to address in future games.
“Once the game was back in the position where you don’t get stops, you don’t win, you know, we started getting stops again,” Fisher said. “That really was the difference in the game.”
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