Kristi Toliver continues to make an impact as Sparks lose to Aces

Kristi Toliver knew it would take time to come back. After missing the first month of the WNBA season while helping the Dallas Mavericks to the Western Conference Finals, the Sparks Guard/Dallas assistant coach doesn’t want to rush or force anything.

When asked Monday morning how close she was to 100 percent conditioning, Toliver hesitated. She wore a black splint around her stomach, which gave her aching muscles a flexible back massage during the shootaround.

“Uh, don’t,” she said with a smile.

Though not in top physical shape, the two-time WNBA champion has influenced the Sparks since returning to her day job. Toliver has started five straight games for the Sparks, including Monday night’s 79-73 loss to the Las Vegas Aces at the Arena.

With a mind she says is “as sharp as ever,” Toliver was one assist away from her season high with five and added three points.

“The game is very, very slow for me,” she said ahead of Monday’s game. “That was kind of interesting for me to feel and be a part of. It should feel harder for me now, just given the situation. But it doesn’t really.”

Toliver showed tiredness as she was held without a assist or a point in the second half. Despite their struggles, the Sparks (7-11) challenged the league-leading Aces – a team they beat by an average of 22.5 points in their first two games – deep into the fourth quarter. The Aces, who were without former Sparks point guard Chelsea Gray, were led with 25 points and 11 rebounds by A’ja Wilson and 29 points by Kelsey Plum.

Nneka Ogwumike, who was named Monday’s Western Conference Player of the Week, led the Sparks with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Lexie Brown had a season-high 17 points in five-for-eight three-point shooting.

The 27-year-old modeled her sniper game on Toliver. Brown only went to Maryland because Toliver went there.

“She was doing Steph Curry things before Steph Curry was doing Steph Curry things,” Brown added Monday. “She was that veteran presence that I think we missed early in the season.”

Even though Toliver came into play Monday averaging just 5.8 points and four assists, her presence took care of the Sparks offense. In five games with Toliver, the Sparks have assisted on 70.5% of their field goals, compared to 62.1% in their first 13 games.

After a season-high 26 assists in an away win against Seattle on Saturday, Ogwumike specifically credited the Sparks’ ball motion to Toliver’s ability to organize offense when she puts the ball on the court. Toliver recognizes the angles of the pitch, interim coach Fred Williams said, and directs traffic so she can put her teammates in the right positions even when she’s not assisting or scoring herself.

“It’s almost like a chessboard,” Warden Brittney Sykes said. “She just picks apart and finds the open person.”

During the Mavericks’ surprise run to the Western Conference Finals, Toliver kept in touch with her teammates. She sent them good luck messages before each game and continued to study the game book. She trained twice a day, but knew the real thing wasn’t like training with Mavericks player development coach God Shammgod.

Toliver is still trying to make up for lost time by lifting weights before games and jumping on the treadmill for sprints afterwards. She joked that she’s taking a page out of Mavericks star Luke Doncic’s book by getting in shape during the season.

Toliver got a front row seat on how well it worked for Doncic. His 31.7 points, 9.8 rebounds and 6.4 assists in the playoffs had Toliver working overtime this summer. Kristi Toliver continues to make an impact as Sparks lose to Aces

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