LA Sparks fighting to grab last playoff spot in rebuilding year riddled with injuries

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Los Angeles Sparks knew this season was a rebuilding year for a franchise looking to regain its championship pedigree. They just didn’t count on a spate of injuries and illness that have sometimes limited them to eight available on a 12-player roster.

“It’s a vicious cycle when you have adversity,” said coach Curt Miller, in his first season with the Sparks after leading the Connecticut Sun to last year’s WNBA Finals. “The teaching has been less than I would hope. You don’t have the amount of time on the practice floor and the reps.”

The Sparks are 13-18 and last week handed the WNBA-leading Las Vegas Aces just their fourth loss of the season. Riding a four-game winning streak, the Sparks lead the Chicago Sky by 1 1/2 games for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs, which begin Sept. 13.

Among their nine remaining games, the Sparks face the second-place New York Liberty, play the third-place Sun twice and host Chicago.

The Sparks used 12 different starting lineups in their first 20 games.

Starting guard Lexie Brown has been out with an unspecified non-COVID illness. Chiney Ogwumike, who hasn’t played since June 28, is expected to be sidelined another four to six weeks while recovering from an Achilles injury. Nia Clouden is out indefinitely with a shin injury.

“The injuries have very much put our backs against the wall and beat us down and drug us through the mud and forced us time and time again to really be gut-checked this season and see how much willingness we have to get back up and keep fighting,” guard Layshia Clarendon said.

Clarendon scored 22 points on 6-of-9 shooting and made all nine free throws in handing the Aces their first regular-season home loss.

Clarendon recently returned after being sidelined for a month with a foot injury. The team is 10-7 with her in the lineup.

“Those 14 games that she missed is a big deal for us,” Miller said. “(Clarendon) just adds so much to what we’re about and what we’re trying to create here culture-wise.”

Brown got off to a strong start, averaging a career-high 13.3 points in the season’s first nine games. Her shooting percentages overall and from 3-point range were career-bests.

The Sparks recently stabilized enough to use the same lineup in four straight games.

“We’re finding our flow now,” guard Jordin Canada said. “Unfortunately, it’s coming toward the end of the season but we’ve had so much adversity. We’re learning each other, we’re playing off each other, we’re talking and communicating more.”

The Sparks are getting career-best seasons from eight-time All-Star Nneka Ogwumike, Canada and Karlie Samuelson.

Now in her 12th year, Ogwumike is putting up numbers comparable to her league MVP season in 2016. She’s averaging 19.7 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists while shooting 51% from the floor. She earlier passed Candace Parker to become the Sparks’ second-leading career scorer behind Lisa Leslie.

Canada was re-signed this season to a training camp contract with her hometown team and fought her way to a starting spot. She’s averaging 13.8 points, 3.4 rebounds and 6.0 assists.

“She hasn’t even scratched the surface,” Miller said. “I truly believe there’s a whole other level to Jordin.”

Rookie Zia Cooke has been one of the team’s most durable players, appearing in 30 games while averaging 14 minutes.

“She’s an exciting young player that has an explosiveness offensively,” Miller said. “We think her ceiling is high. She’s really, really coachable and an unbelievable person, and that’s what we wanted to build this with, great people and Zia exemplifies that.”

The Sparks won back-to-back WNBA championships in 2001 and ’02 — the only active team to do so — and again in 2016. They’ve missed the playoffs the last two years and are eager to change that as they rebuild.

“If we can make a run and get into the playoffs, we’ll be a tough out,” Miller said. “If we fall short and we’re into the (draft) lottery, then we hope the balls bounce our way.”



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