For one night, the Sparks can exhale.
The star-studded team avoided another early season disaster Wednesday by snapping a five-game losing streak with a 99-94 victory over the Phoenix Mercury at Crypto.com Arena. After getting their first home win of the year, the Sparks graciously waved to the crowd of 4,020 with smiles on every player’s face.
The last time the Sparks celebrated a win, it was the third day of the season. At the time, when an 87-77 win over the Indiana Fever gave the Sparks two consecutive road victories to open the season, the team looked like it could quickly grow into a rftgzxplayoff contender. The five-game losing streak was a harsh reality check.
The Las Vegas Aces blew out the Sparks 104-76 on Monday, but the losses that sting the most are the three that came by just one possession. The late missed shots, blown defensive assignments and poorly executed plays revealed just how much work the Sparks had ahead of them.
Those with rose-colored glasses see a team that has eight new players that’s still in contention despite playing six of its first eight games on the road with almost no practice time since the season began on May 6. But the standings that had the Sparks ninth in the WNBA before Wednesday’s victory deal only in black and white.
“This is pro sports,” coach Derek Fisher said before Wednesday’s game. “You’ve got to get Ws.”
Now with the slightest bit of momentum, the Sparks (3-5) could finish the first month of the season on a high note. They travel to Indiana (2-7) on Friday, where they’ve already beaten the Fever once, and finish the month in Minnesota, where they could avenge a three-point home loss to the Lynx (2-6).
Slow starts plagued the Sparks during their losing streak. They entered Wednesday’s game as the league’s worst first-half team, averaging a 7.4-point deficit heading into the locker room. But after sinking seven of their first nine three-pointers against the Mercury (2-5), they led by 11 at the break, due to Katie Lou Samuelson’s three-of-four shooting effort.
Teammates mobbed Samuelson after her three with 4:02 remaining in the second quarter put the Sparks up by eight and forced a Phoenix timeout. Samuelson’s smile showed elation, but also relief. She had emerged from a one-of-13 shooting slump (0-for-nine from three) in the last two games.
“I took a lot of time yesterday to just reflect and just get that weight off of me,” said Samuelson, who joined the Sparks 10 days ago after helping her Spanish team to a league title on May 12. ” And then coming into today’s game, I was really focused on just having fun and playing with passion.”
Samuelson’s first start was a step toward Fisher’s ideal version of the Sparks. He knew the former Connecticut and Mater Dei star could deliver the three-point shooting, floor-spacing and length the Sparks had been missing at the wing position in recent years. But the 6-foot-3 forward also got thrown into a WNBA game less than 48 hours after taking a 12-hour flight from Spain to the United States on Saturday. And that came after a seven-month European season that prevented her from arriving in time for training camp.
“Katie Lou’s asked to do a lot in trying to catch up to the rest of the group,” Fisher said. “And I’m just happy for her that she had a good night.”
Samuelson is one key piece of the Sparks’ puzzle, but with almost a quarter of the 36-game season done, they’re still not complete.
Guard Kristi Toliver is expected back as soon as the Dallas Mavericks, currently down 3-1 in the Western Conference finals, finish their NBA playoff run. More important than Toliver’s arrival date is her conditioning, Fisher said last week. The 35-year-old told ESPN’s Andscape she is working out twice a day to ensure she can jump into the Sparks rotation as soon as she arrives. Fisher said Wednesday the roster was designed around the two-time WNBA champion’s presence. Her shooting, ball-handling and basketball IQ could work wonders for a team that has struggled to execute in key moments this season.
Some of the issues could be ironed out with consistent practice time. The Sparks’ unforgiving schedule has them playing 11 games in the season’s first 26 days with only three home games. But from June 1 to 18, the Sparks only have two games, giving the new-look team plenty of time to gel on the practice court. The respite offers hope at the end of the grueling first month.
“It’s just time and patience,” said center Liz Cambage, who had a standout game with 21 points, seven rebounds and five assists. “I’ve been playing pro ball since I was 15 years old. I won a lot, I’ve lost a lot, but it’s the journey. In the end, it’s just staying together and staying calm. And look at us tonight.”