Kristi Toliver knew it was going to 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 things.
When asked Monday morning how close to 100% conditioning she was, Toliver hesitated. She was wearing a black brace around her midsection that gave her aching muscles a mobile back massage during shootaround.
“Uh, not,” she said with a smile.
Despite being in less-than-top condition physically, the two-time WNBA champion has been impacting the Sparks since she returned 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 Crypto.com Arena.
With a mind she says is as “sharp as ever,” Toliver was one assist shy of her season high with five and added three points.
“The game is very, very slow for me,” she said before Monday’s game. “That’s kind of been interesting for me to feel and be a part of. It should feel harder for me right now, just given the situation. But it doesn’t really.”
Fatigue showed for Toliver as she was held without an assist or a point in the second half. Despite her struggles, the Sparks (7-11) challenged the league-leading Aces — a team that beat them 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 by 25 points and 11 rebounds from A’ja Wilson and 29 points from Kelsey Plum.
Nneka Ogwumike, who was named Western Conference player of the week Monday, led the Sparks with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Lexie Brown had a season-high 17 points on five-for-eight three-point shooting.
The 27-year-old modeled her sharp-shooting game after Toliver. Brown went to Maryland solely because Toliver went there.
“She was doing Steph Curry things before Steph Curry was doing Steph Curry things,” Brown added Monday. “She’s been that veteran presence I think we’ve been missing towards the beginning of the season.”
Although Toliver entered Monday’s game averaging just 5.8 points and four assists, her presence has settled the Sparks offense. In five games with Toliver, the Sparks have assisted on 70.5% of their made field goals compared to 62.1% in the first 13 games.
After a season-high 26 assists in a road win against Seattle on Saturday, Ogwumike credited the Sparks’ ball movement specifically to Toliver’s ability to organize the offense when she brings the ball up the court. Toliver recognizes the angles of the court, interim coach Fred Williams said, and directs traffic so even if she is not assisting or scoring herself, she puts her teammates in the right positions to do so themselves.
“It’s almost like a chessboard,” guard Brittney Sykes said. “She just picks apart and finds the open person.”
During the Mavericks’ surprising run to the Western Conference finals, Toliver stayed in contact with her teammates. She sent them good luck messages before every game and continued studying the playbook. She worked out twice a day but knew the real thing wouldn’t compare to any workout 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 after. She joked she’s taking a page from Mavericks star Luke Doncic’s book by getting into playing shape during the season.
Toliver got a front-row seat to how well it worked for Doncic. His 31.7 points, 9.8 rebounds and 6.4 assists in the playoffs were what had Toliver working overtime this summer.