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How the Los Angeles Sparks could still make WNBA playoffs

During training and before games, the Sparks not only scout their next opponent. In the midst of a tight playoff race, the team is also shattering its ever-changing playoff hopes.

“We know our chances are somewhere around 1% or 2%,” said interim head coach Fred Williams on Sunday ahead of a competitive game in Washington. “But as long as you have a percent there, we’ll try.”

The Sparks’ 79-76 win over the playoff-tied Mystics helped keep their slim postseason chances alive, but they remain on the fence as they enter the final homestand of the regular season. The Sparks (13-20) are two games away against playoff-tied Connecticut and the regular-season finale against playoff hopeful Dallas, one game out of the playoff race, but are 11th overall and need to probably win .

Sixth-seeded Dallas (16-16) has moved comfortably ahead in the race with a 2 1/2 game lead over Atlanta and Phoenix, who are tied 14-19. New York (13-19) and Minnesota (13-20) stay ahead of the Sparks in the crowded race. With only Indiana Fever eliminated from the playoffs, any team seeking a postseason berth has multiple games against playoff-tied teams or competitors.

Of the four other teams in the mix for the last two postseason spots, the Sparks only claim the head-to-head tiebreaker against Phoenix. Atlanta, New York and Minnesota all went 2-1 against the Sparks in the regular season.

The crowded playoff race gave even more meaning to the Sparks’ recent four-game road trip as it decided the season series against New York and Atlanta. Extending their losing streak to six, including a New York encounter and a heartbreaking loss to Atlanta, nearly ended the Sparks’ playoff chances.

Cheyenne Parker’s baseline ride in Atlanta with 0.3 seconds remaining looked like it would be the decisive blow in the Sparks’ disappointing season, a loss too disheartening to recover from. However, with the postseason at stake, the Sparks hit back on Sunday to end the difficult road trip with a confident win.

“No matter what our circumstances are, no matter how many games we want to win back, we always go out and compete and play hard and I think that’s what really keeps us going,” Nneka told Ogwumike after graduating with 15 points and six rebounds against Washington. “We don’t have people quitting.”

Sunday’s victory was the team’s first since center Liz Cambage abruptly left the team as part of a “contract divorce.” The acrimonious split and an ongoing injury to Chiney Ogwumike, who has struggled with blurred vision since clashing with New Yorker Rebecca Allen on August 2, opened up a bigger role for rookie Olivia Nelson-Ododa.

The 6-foot-5 Connecticut forward has started three straight games, including a career-best 10-rebound, four-block performance against the Liberty on Aug. 3, which she followed up with 10 points against the Dream two days later. Nelson-Ododa had four points, five rebounds and two blocks against the Mystics and calmly sunk two clutch free throws with 4.4 seconds remaining to secure the win.

“She’s almost out of the rookie stage,” Williams said. “She’s more of a veteran now for this part of the season.”

Guard Brittney Sykes, who has scored double figures in five straight games, noted the rookie’s fearlessness. Nneka Ogwumike said Nelson-Ododa “just got it” in a way most beginners don’t.

“And she never complains,” added security guard Jordin Canada. “She’s learning as she goes, but you just see the potential she has to be a really great post player.”

The emergence of the second-round draft pick offers hope for the Sparks’ future even if they don’t make the playoffs. The next steps of the franchise’s much-needed rebuild are hampered by the instability of the roster left behind by former general manager and coach Derek Fisher.

Katie Lou Samuelson and Chennedy Carter are the only players with protected contracts for next season. Nelson-Ododa, fellow rookie Rae Burrell and sophomore forward Jasmine Walker have unprotected deals. Former franchise No. 1 and longtime pillar Nneka Ogwumike is one of six unrestricted free agents.

While Nneka Ogwumike expressed a desire to stay in LA when asked about her future following Fisher’s firing in June, the organization may struggle to build around the proven superstar. There’s no draft lottery consolation prize for the Sparks if they miss the playoffs because they traded their 2023 first-round draft pick to Atlanta along with guard Erica Wheeler on the move that brought Carter to the team in February . The dream then traded the pickaxe with the mystics.

Carter gave a glimpse of her brilliance on July 28 with 23 points in 20 minutes against the Mercury, but hasn’t found consistent base with the Sparks. Despite the team’s short bench, Carter stayed on the touchline for the last three games because Williams simply referred to it as “the coach’s call.”

https://www.latimes.com/sports/sparks/story/2022-08-08/how-los-angeles-sparks-can-still-make-wnba-playoffs How the Los Angeles Sparks could still make WNBA playoffs

Emma Bowman

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