Sports

Depleted Sparks take on league’s best, starting with Las Vegas Wednesday

The Sparks have five games left before the Olympic break. Four of them are against the top two teams in the WNBA starting with the Las Vegas Aces (11-4) who come to town for a two-game series Wednesday, followed by two games against league-leading Seattle Storm (12-4).

Las Vegas is one of the hottest teams in the league, most recently knocking off the defending champion Storm. The Aces have won six of their last seven games. While the Sparks (6-8) haven’t quite found their stride, losing five of their last seven.

“We know that is going to be a tough stretch,” guard Erica Wheeler said after Sunday’s game. “We just have to be ready. We can’t worry about what we don’t have.”

The already depleted Sparks lost three players from the roster this week ahead of the midseason protected contract deadline. Kristine Anigwe and Bria Holmes were released Monday and the Sparks terminated the hardship contract of Karlie Samuelson Tuesday. In six games this season, including one start, Samuelson averaged 3.2 points, 1.5 rebounds, and 1.0 assists in 13.0 minutes per game.

Coach and general manager Derek Fisher said difficult decisions had to be made to fit their vision for the rest of the season as well as the future.

Regardless of how many players are on the roster, Fisher says he’s happy with the continued effort from the players.

After falling behind by 19 points against the Phoenix Mercury Sunday, the Sparks continued to show fight until the last few minutes before losing 88-79.

“They’re not just going through the motions out there, they’re really giving everything that they have,” Fisher said after the loss. “Some nights the other team is just better than us.”

Fisher characterized both Nneka Ogwumike (knee sprain) and Chiney Ogwumike (knee) as week-to-week while making progress, but both will miss Wednesday’s game. He indicated that there’s no urgency to accelerate Nneka Ogwumike’s four-to-six week timeline after not being named to the Tokyo Olympic team. It’s been four weeks since the older Ogwumike sister injured her knee.

Jasmine Walker (knee) is also out Wednesday, leaving the Sparks with just eight active players against Las Vegas, including Kristi Toliver, who missed the last game with an eye injury and is listed as questionable.

A healthier Sparks teams got blown out 97-69 at Las Vegas in the second game of the season. Since then, Sparks guard Brittney Sykes said they’ve developed more chemistry together.

Sykes, one of the top defensive players in the league, will have to be integral to stopping the top scoring team in the league (91.3). The Aces are also second ranked defensively, above above the fifth rated Sparks.

Sparks center Amanda Zahui B. has already faced talented bigs from Brittney Griner to Tina Charles this year, but Wednesday poses two challenges in forward Aj’a Wilson and center Liz Cambage.

“It’s hard playing in this league, given having games where the player gets the best centers in the world back-to-back-to-back” she said. “(I’m) just trying to make them as uncomfortable as possible.”

Zahui B. didn’t face Las Vegas in the first matchup May 21. Last season’s WNBA MVP Wilson leads the Las Vegas in scoring (19.4) while Cambage leads in rebounds (9.1).

Former Sparks champion Chelsea Gray also makes her return to Los Angeles. She left for Las Vegas this past offseason after five seasons with the Sparks. The point guard ranks second in assists (6.5) league-wide. In the overtime victory against the Storm, a jumper from Gray put the Aces ahead down the stretch.

Fisher said this current Sparks team is filled with players who weren’t given a chance in the league, and that’s why they continue to battle.

“We still are really excited about what our team is going to look like in the coming weeks,” he said.

Until then, the Sparks will have to muster their signature energy and scrappiness to compete with the league’s best.

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