Mystics' balance, chemistry overwhelm Sparks in blowout win

BySean Hurd | ESPN The Magazine via ESPN logo
Friday, August 24, 2018

WASHINGTON -- Candace Parker and the Los Angeles Sparks went to the WNBA Finals in each of the past two seasons, both times earning a double bye with the second-best record in the regular season.

This year, they saw what could happen without those spoils.

Two days after beating the defending champion Minnesota Lynx in the first round, the Sparks suffered a 96-64 loss to the Washington Mystics on the road, their worst playoff loss in franchise history.

"We did this to ourselves," said Parker, the only Sparks player to score in double figures. "The teams that got rest, they took care of business [during the regular season], we didn't. I think there's a lot that we can learn from this."

The Sparks, who were down by as many as 34 points, trailed 27-16 at the end of the first quarter and 47-29 at halftime, receiving only one first-half point between Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray. The duo scored 45 points Tuesday against the Lynx.

Meanwhile, six Mystics players scored at least 10 points, led by Elena Delle Donne's 19 points and 12 rebounds. Their balance, Ogwumike said, makes them a dangerous team heading into the semifinals, where Washington faces the second-seeded Atlanta Dream on Sunday in Game 1 of a best-of five series.

"They've figured out their team," Ogwumike said. "They're not just playing well; they put people in good positions. People thrive because they have the chemistry. They know what people are good at and what people like to do. ... They're playing stress free."

At first, the Sparks didn't show any signs of fatigue. They made five of their first seven shots and pushed the tempo early -- perhaps uncharacteristically -- on both sides of the ball to build an early 11-5 lead. But while Los Angeles tried to outpace Washington early, it went ice cold, making just 8 of 32 shots to end the half, as the Mystics held strong.

"That was the point of emphasis to win the game, take pride in our defense and make it hard for them to stay in the rhythm of their game," said Mystics guard Kristi Toliver, who finished with 11 points and nine assists. "They're a very rhythm-oriented team, so to take them out of rhythm makes it hard for them to score points."

The Mystics countered with one of their best offensive performances of the entire season. Washington used the Sparks' cold shooting to their advantage, pushing the ball in transition against an off-balanced Los Angeles defense that appeared slow on rotations. When the Mystics caught their stride, they were able to find offense on any part of the floor, especially during an 18-3 run capped by Ariel Atkins' 3-pointer early in the third quarter.

"We weren't ever able to get our defense set," Parker said. "You're not going to win many games like that."

Atkins contributed 14 points as Washington improved to 8-1 over its past nine games. In addition to stifling Ogwumike's offensive prowess, Latoya Sanders finished with 14 points, seven rebounds, four steals and four assists. Washington finished with a team-record 28 assists on the night.

"I think it was just trusting in the next pass and trusting one another and not having to force any situation, knowing that if we move the ball, they were going to break down at some point," said Delle Donne, who recorded her ninth double-double of the year.

Next for the Mystics is Atlanta, which went 8-2 to finish out the regular season. And while Delle Donne stressed how Thursday's win kept their season alive, she knows how quickly momentum can swing after being swept by the Lynx in last year's semifinals.

"We know the importance of every single game, every single possession," she said. "We will all make sure that everyone is ready and locked in."

While anything short of a title appearance for Los Angeles is considered a disappointment in recent years, the Sparks faced a tall order against a well-rested Mystics team. Ogwumike's eight points were the second-fewest she scored this season as she continues to battle mononucleosis, which caused her to miss three regular-season games. Parker, too, had dealt with ailments Tuesday against the Lynx, but neither player used her sickness or quick turnaround between games as an excuse for Thursday's loss.

"My hat's off to Washington. They played really well," Sparks head coach Brian Agler said. "They made the right plays offensively, open people hit shots. They were the better team today, no question about that."