Sparks season comes to a close at the hands of the Connecticut Sun

Los Angeles just could not consistently keep up with Connecticut throughout the semifinals.

Sparks guard Chelsea Gray (left) battling for the ball with Sun guard Jasmine Thomas (right) in the first half of Game 3 at Walter Pyramid on Long Beach State’s campus. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP Photo)

Connecticut came into this semifinal series with a chip on their shoulder and swept the Los Angeles Sparks to advance to the 2019 WNBA Finals. In this elimination game at Long Beach State, the Connecticut Sun dominated the Los Angeles Sparks 78-56 as the Sparks could not fend off the impending sweep.

On any given night, any player for the Connecticut Sun can get it going and be a factor in their success. Throughout the season and this series, that was the case. Alyssa Thomas imposed her will on the Sparks in the first game while Jonquel Jones crashed the boards and was effective in the paint throughout the second game.

In game three, the starting backcourt in Jasmine Thomas and Courtney Williams left their mark in Walter Pyramid. Williams not only shined in the final game, but has been a consistent source of energy and production for the Sun. Trying to stop both Thomas and Williams was a tough task for Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who is the heart of the Sparks’ defense. Putting pressure on not only that duo, but the whole Sun team takes a total team defensive effort for the Sparks and that was not present.

“When you have two great guards out there, you have to learn how to contain both as a team, not just one-on-one,” Ruffin-Pratt said.

Connecticut imposed their will on Los Angeles all series long. Whether it was Alyssa Thomas being a deterrent on the defensive end or the Sun’s overall pressure, the Sparks had no answer for them.

“We just have swagger this series,” Sun head coach Curt Miller said. “As physical and intense as it got from LA in stretches, I thought that we were the more aggressive team.”

Connecticut came out with a focus and different level of intensity. Even with it being a physical series, the Sun were the ones to instinctively “punch first,” and the Sparks looked a bit overwhelmed at times when that happened.

“How hard you cut is physicality, how forceful you communicate during defense, and that’s how you send a message to your opponents,” Sparks head coach Derek Fisher said. “You have to give Connecticut a lot of credit for being able to sustain a level of play.”

Candace Parker’s last productive game in this series was in the opener in Connecticut where she looked spry and had 24 points, 10 rebounds, and three assists. From that performance, one would have thought that a classic version of Parker would continue to show up in this series.

However, that would not be the case. In games two and three combined, she had 7 points.

Parker said that both physically and mentally, she was okay. She looked like she was working her way into a rhythm in the first quarter, but her evening would soon be done early in the third quarter. Parker played just 11 minutes and had 4 points in game three.

“I tried to do as much as I could do in the moment to help the team. It wasn’t an injury or any specific ‘this is why I’m not going to play Candace’ reason,” Fisher said on the matter. “I know it’s Candace Parker and we’re going to try to make it about her 11 minutes, but it was just about trying to do something different I thought would try and help us win.”

Even with Fisher attempting to manage the minutes of everyone, he played all 12 players; pulling Parker from the game after 11 minutes is not ideal when it is early and she’s trying to up her rhythm to contribute.

Nneka Ogwumike has been a constant performer throughout the three games. With most of her points coming from the paint, she tried her best to let the Sparks have a fighting chance in the series.

Despite having a tall task of trying to contain Jones and Alyssa Thomas in the paint, she didn’t back down when the going got tough. Ogwumike continued to give the Sparks a lift in their different runs in the game that were toppled by the Sun. Ogwumike left it all out on the court until Fisher pulled the starters out early in the fourth quarter.

Ogwumike finished game three with a team-leading 17 points on 7-15 field goals and six rebounds.

This series was not an indicator of how the Sparks season was as a whole, but merely a byproduct of trying to figure out how to play as a unit with all 12 players active. For a first-year under a new coach and staff with Fisher, new players, and a new philosophy, the Sparks managed to hold third place in the league and be one of the last four teams standing in the playoffs.

“There’s a lot of room to grow,” Ogwumike said. “Obviously, we didn’t end how we wanted it to but I’m happy with my team.”

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