Rested Sparks battle rising Sky in WNBA semis
The post-Olympics run to the WNBA playoffs was anything but kind to Los Angeles, but those struggles easily could be forgotten it the team achieves success in the postseason.
The Sparks begin the playoffs Wednesday at the Walter Pyramid in Long Beach, Calif., with the opener a best-of-five semifinal series against the soaring Chicago Sky.
The Sparks, the No. 2 overall seed in the postseason after a 26-8 regular season, went 5-5 after the league took a month-long break for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro but won their final two games.
"I think Coach (Brian Agler) understands we have to get better but also prepare our bodies physically," said Los Angeles forward Nneka Ogwumike, who on Tuesday was selected the WNBA's Most Valuable Player. "There's more focus on small things, and I wouldn't say that we're going as hard as we were before."
Ogwumike shot a WNBA-best 66.5 percent from the field this season, the second-highest mark of all time, and ranked third in the league in scoring (a career-high 19.7 points per game) and rebounding (9.1 boards per game, also a career high).
She recorded the second-most double-doubles in the league (18) and set WNBA records for consecutive field goals made (23) and most field goals in a game without a miss (12, against the Dallas Wings on June 11).
The Sparks won their first 11 games, the second-longest winning streak to open a season in WNBA history, and began 20-1 to equal the best-ever start.
Los Angeles hasn't played a game since posting a regular-season-ending victory over the San Antonio Stars on Sept. 16. The Sparks received a double bye into the semifinals.
"It's real strange, real strange," Agler said about the layoff in the playoffs. "But we'll be ready this time around. We have to be."
Conversely, Chicago, by way of the No. 4 seed, had only a first-round bye, then beat the Atlanta Dream 108-98 in a single-game elimination playoff round on Sunday to reach the semifinals.
The availability of Chicago forward Elena Delle Donne, who has been sidelined since Sept. 12 after undergoing thumb surgery, could be a huge factor in this series. The Sky hopes to have Delle Donne back for at least some of the series to help counter the Sparks' dynamic frontcourt tandem of Ogwumike and former MVP Candace Parker.
Chicago is 4-2 without Delle Donne, surprising many who thought the team would fade without its star in the lineup.
"Everybody has written us off, and I don't think anybody believed that we were going to be able win games without her except us," Sky point guard Courtney Vandersloot said after the win over Atlanta. "The biggest factor is we believe that we can do it and we all know that we had to step up. We have enough on this team to get it done."
The Sky went 7-3 over their final 10 regular-season games. Chicago led the league in scoring at 90.1 points per contest despite playing its final five games without Delle Donne.
Chicago beat Atlanta in the second round of the playoffs thanks to a balanced attack in which seven players scored at least eight points.
Los Angeles swept the three-game regular-season series with the Sky, winning twice in the Chicago.