Sparks make it 6 straight wins after beating Atlanta

Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports
The Sparks are now 15-18 and take over the 7th seed.

The Sparks continue to roll.

It was very similar to their game last August 12 when the Sparks and the Atlanta Dream played a tale of two halves. Sparks were down by double digits in the first half. And then their defense took over and dominated the second half. This time around, the Sparks did it on the road and they won their 6th game in a row, 83-78.

Allisha Gray was a late scratch (although she didn’t play against the Aces on Tuesday). And Nia Coffey has been deemed out for the season. Still, the Dream have Rhyne Howard and Cheyenne Parker. And they have potent players in Aari McDonald, Danielle Robinson, Monique Billings, A.D. Durr, and Haley Jones.

The teams kept it close after the first quarter as Atlanta led, 20-17. However, the Sparks’ trapping defense couldn’t catch up to the ball movement that the Dream were doing. Cheyenne Parker, much like she did nearly two weeks ago, had a big first half for Atlanta. A Rhyne Howard three extended the lead to 16 points. But good thing that Azura Stevens, who also had herself a first half, made a three-point play before the halftime buzzer. The Atlanta Dream had a dangerous 52-39 lead against the Sparks.

But we’ve seen the Sparks do this time and again, including against the Dream themselves. The Sparks defense was in action again and they didn’t overextend themselves as much as they did in the first half. It resulted in defense turning into quick offense. A 14-2 run by Los Angeles evaporated the Atlanta lead. Nneka Ogwumike scored 11 of her points in the third period. While the Sparks were able to tie the game at one point in that third, the Dream still held on to a precarious 64-62 lead going into the fourth.

And it’s more defense once again by the Sparks. Dearica Hamby made a three to break the tie. While they eventually took away a Nneka bucket after a shot clock review, her putback lay-up gave the Sparks a 77-71 lead.

Both Ogwumike and Rhyne Howard traded baskets. Karlie Samuelson missed a three and the ball went to the Dream with 17 seconds left as the Sparks held on to an 81-78 lead. But Howard missed an awkward drive and Layshia Clarendon made two free throws after she was fouled. Then Jordin Canada, who is apparently faster than the speed of light, stole the ball as Atlanta attempted to roll the ball in the ensuing inbounds play. It was enough to take more time off the clock and the Sparks came away with their 6th straight win.

“We were down 16 but we hadn’t played our best basketball and felt like we weren’t executing on both ends. I thought their physicality bothered us at the offensive end. And I thought we could find another level. But more importantly, defensively, I thought we were slow to react. We seemed a little bit fatigued early and then we found physicality, the aggressiveness, the guttiness, and the grittiness we need to be a good defensive team,” said Coach Curt Miller when I asked him about being down big and not panicking.

“I just try to play as calm as possible,” said Azura Stevens when I asked her about how they kept it together even when down by double figures. “I think the starting five and even the team; we’re all just on the same page on staying calm when things get hectic. We have a lot of experience on our team. We have people who have won championships and know that you gotta stay calm at these moments. It’s not about how you start, it’s how you finish.”

I then asked Nneka Ogwumike what the focus was when down big in a game like this.

“Definitely getting stops with whatever our defensive scheme is. And turning those stops into good offensive opportunities. No one’s trying to miss but there’s more of a likelihood to be more efficient if you’re able to get stops and then get shots on goal. And I think we try to focus on that one possession at a time.”

They were down 11 in their previous match-up and then they were down 16 on Friday night. It’s been a signature for the Sparks this season to be down a lot and then surging back to make a game out of it. And as of late, that said surge overwhelms their opponents. Again, the Sparks have won 6 straight games and are looking as dangerous as any team out there.

The Dream shot .636 in the first half but were limited to .310 after halftime. The Sparks outscored them in the second half, 44-26. While Atlanta made all five of their attempts from three in the first half, they didn’t make any in the second half. The Sparks didn’t seem to trap as much in the second half but they covered so much ground with some timely hedges and doubles.

Nneka Ogwumike carried them to the finish line as she finished with 29 points and 12 rebounds. Azura Stevens had 18 points and 8 boards. And Jordin Canada had an amazing line with 15 points, 9 assists, and 6 steals. In Atlanta’s side, Cheyenne Parker scored 22 points while Rhyne Howard put in 15. But Howard only scored four points after the half. Danielle Robinson scored 12 points and she really kept the Dream in it while the Sparks were making their run.

Oh, and more thing:

Nneka has reached yet another milestone. 100 career double-doubles. Congrats to Nneka Ogwumike.

The starters played heavy minutes and that might be something to watch on Sunday when they play next in Connecticut. But for now, it’s 6 in a row for the Sparks. And the 7th playoff spot as they overtake the Washington Mystics due to a tiebreaker.