WNBA Playoff Race: What’s Wrong With The Los Angeles Sparks?

The Los Angeles Sparks started the season with a WNBA-best 20-1 record but have since lost four-of-five.

Los Angeles (21-5) dropped its second straight game, following the Olympic break, suffering a 70-66 setback to the Phoenix Mercury in Phoenix on August 28. The Sparks are now a half-game behind the Minnesota Lynx (22-5) for the top-seed in the league. Los Angeles is also just two and a half games ahead of the New York Liberty for the all-important No. 2 seed with three weeks left in regular season.

Trailing 64-55, Los Angeles went on an 11-4 run to cut the deficit to two. After holding the Mercury in check offensively on multiple possessions, Sparks forward Essence Carson hauled in a rebound late in the game and pushed the ball up the floor. While L.A. did have a numbers advantage, Carson hoisted up an ill-advised three-point shot with 10.9 seconds remaining that Phoenix’s Kelsey Bone rebounded. Following a Mercury timeout, Los Angeles sent Diana Taurasi to the foul line. Taurasi knocked down both free throws to give the Mercury the final margin of victory.

Taurasi had a game-high 26 points, on 9-of-17 shooting, to lead the Mercury to their fourth victory in their last five games.

Candace Parker led the way for the Sparks with her fifth double-double of the year, producing 25 points and 13 rebounds along with seven assists. MVP candidate Nneka Ogwumike added 15 points and nine caroms for L.A.

Los Angeles shot 49.1 percent (28-of-57) from the field and held Phoenix to 38.6 percent (27-of-70) shooting. However, the Sparks turned the ball over 23 times, leading to 19 Mercury points, and were outrebounded 34-32 — including 12-4 on the offensive end.

What’s wrong with the Sparks?

Los Angeles has struggled on the offensive end lately. The Sparks, who are the third-highest scoring team in the league, have been held below their 85.4 scoring average in each of their last four losses. The biggest issue has been turnovers. Los Angeles has turned the ball over 82 times over the past five games. Overall, the Sparks rank seventh in the league, with 14.1 turnovers a contest.

A season-long problem for Los Angeles has been its bench. The Sparks basically use a seven-person rotation with Jantel Lavender and Chelsea Gray being the only two bench players who see regular time. Lavender has been the most productive player of the reserves, averaging 9.8 points and 3.4 rebounds while shooting 54.2 percent from the field.

Help could be on the way. SB Nation reports that the Sparks have signed French Olympian Sandrine Gruda for the remainder of the season. Gruda averaged 8.3 points and 4.2 caroms in 19.9 minutes of action in the Olympics. The six-foot-four forward previously played for the Sparks in 2014.

The rest of the article will look at the WNBA’s playoff picture.

The WNBA changed its playoff format before the 2016 season. Just as before, eight teams will make the postseason, but the league eliminated the conference affiliation from the equation — meaning that the regular season records will determine the seedings of the teams.

The league playoffs will have four rounds of playoffs, instead of three like previous years. The first-and-second-round games will be one game series. The semifinals and finals will be the best-of-five. Also, the top two seeds will automatically advance to the semifinals while the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds will get a first-round bye.

Here are the WNBA playoff rankings

1. Minnesota Lynx (22-5). The Lynx have the best record in the league after defeating Seattle 92-80 on Sunday. Minnesota is the hottest team in the league, winning eight-of-their-last-10 games, and rank second in the league, with 85.6 points per game and second in scoring defense, permitting 76.3 points.

Lyndsay Whalen led the way for the Lynx against Seattle with a season-high 24 points, on 9-of-15 shooting. Seimone Augustus (18), Maya Moore (13), Sylvia Fowles (11) and Jia Perkins (10) also scored in double-figures. Fowles recorded her 11th double-double of the campaign by grabbing 11 boards.

2. Los Angeles Sparks (21-5). The Sparks have the best home record in the WNBA at 11-1. Kristi Toliver made her 400th career triple against the Storm to move up to No. 16 on the WNBA’s all-time list. Toliver now has 65 treys on the season, a new career-high.

3. New York Liberty (19-8). The Liberty have the best record in the Eastern Conference. New York won its lone game after Olympic break on Friday, defeating San Antonio 84-77. MVP candidate Tina Charles is second in the league with 21.0 points along and leads the WNBA in 9.7 caroms

4. Atlanta Dream (14-13). The Dream are just 2-4 in their last six games. Atlanta defeated Connecticut 87-73 on Sunday behind 19 points apiece from Layshia Clarendon and Angel McCoughtry. Tiffany Hayes added 17 points while Elizabeth Williams contributed 16 points, nine rebounds, and two blocked shots.

5. Chicago Sky (13-13). The Sky have won both of their post-Olympic break games, defeating Atlanta (90-82) and Dallas (92-85). Elena Delle Donne is the top scorer in the WNBA at 21.6 points a game for the third highest scoring team in the league.

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6. Indiana Fever (12-13). The Fever had their three-game winning streak snapped by the Washington Wizards (92-69) on August 27. Indiana ranks ninth in the league, with 80.0 points a game and is sixth in points allowed at 81.8.

7. Phoenix Mercury (12-14). The Mercury have won two straight and four-of-five. Phoenix ranks second in the league in scoring (85.5) but is 10th in scoring defense — allowing 84.8 points a contest.

8. Washington Mystics (10-16). The Mystics are currently tied with the Seattle for the final playoff spot. Washington is 1-1 since the Olympic break, defeating Indiana before falling to San Antonio (85-74) on August 28.

Washington is just 1-8 in its last nine games and has a minus-2.9 point differential. The Mystics and the Storm have split their season series with one game remaining in Washington.

9. Seattle Storm (10-16). The Storm has gone through a very tough stretch of their schedule, posting a 4-5 record. In those nine games, Seattle played the Lynx twice, Sparks once, and Liberty once.

Breanna Stewart is having a fabulous rookie campaign, ranking seventh in the league in scoring (18.3 ppg) and second n rebounding (9.2). The Storm is just 3-8 on the road and has a negative-1.8 point differential.

10. Connecticut Sun (9-17). The Sun are one game out of the final playoff spot. Connecticut had its season-high three-game winning streak snapped by Atlanta on August 28. Alex Bentley leads five Sun players in double figures with 13.4 points a game.

11. Dallas Wings (9-18). The Wings, in their first season in the league [formerly Tulsa Shock], are one-and-a-half games out of the final playoff spot. Dallas has lost eight straight and is the worst defensive team in the league, allowing 88.6 points a contest. Odyssey Sims leads five players with 14.3 points a game.

12. San Antonio Stars (6-19). The Stars ended a six-game losing streak with an 85-74 victory over Washington as Monique Currie, Jazmon Gwathmey, and Astou Ndour scored 16 points apiece. San Antonio is the lowest scoring team in the league at 72.9 points a game. The Stars are also the worst road team in the league, posting a 2-11 record, and possess the league’s worst point differential (7.5).

[Photo by Jessica Hill/AP Photo]