Sparks finding some working plays

“I'm having so much fun, this is one of the best and most fun seasons I’ve had in the W, said Zahui B.

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Since starting off the season 0-2 with blowout losses to the Dallas Wings and Las Vegas Aces, the Los Angeles Sparks have gone an impressive 4-1, including two home wins without both Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike.

The upward swing in their play began with their 76-61 win over the Chicago Sky back on May 28. They followed that up with another solid win over the Sky, withstanding an offensive barrage from Courtney Vandersloot and pulling out a crunch time victory, 82-79.

They had a little hiccup against the Dallas Wings, the game in which Nneka went down with a knee injury, but they regrouped and pulled off back to back home wins against the Indiana Fever and the Sky.

There have been several things that have been working for the Sparks that have led to the resurgence in play. One of the key factors being the return of Amanda Zahui B. who had missed the first two games of the season with a back injury.

She made her debut off the bench in the May 28 win over Chicago albeit being on a minutes restriction, but the following game, the first that Chiney missed, Zahui B. was needed down the stretch and into overtime finishing with 17 points and eight rebounds.

In the team’s most recent win at home against the Sky, Zahui B. had one of her best games of the season so far with 13 points, ten rebounds, and four blocked shots. Her activity on the glass and the defensive end has really helped energize the Sparks in two areas that they were struggling a bit with.

“I'm having so much fun, this is one of the best and most fun seasons I’ve had in the W. I mean we have a lot of characters on this team. And I think that their goofiness is really rubbing off on me when I'm out there,” Zahui B. said. “I love every single one of them. It's so much fun, even when you know we struggle a little bit. We have the best people on the bench who are hyping us up, it doesn't matter who's on the bench, there's always energy.”

Zahui B. has also made a huge impact on the offensive end. Her ability to stretch the floor with her shooting has opened up the game for the Sparks guards, most notably Erica Wheeler.

Joining Zahui B. in the frontcourt has been Nia Coffey who has also been a major revelation for the Sparks. She too has provided tough interior defense and activity on the glass and she also has been able to provide spacing with consistent three-point shooting.

With the two bigs able to float to the perimeter and be consistent threats from the outside, Wheeler has taken advantage of the open lanes and has made a much more concerted effort to get to the rim. The Sparks had been struggling shooting-wise in their first couple of games and Wheeler has taken it upon herself to start making things happen at the rim.

After the Sparks road wins in Chicago, Wheeler talked about how much easier it’s been to get to the rim with Zahui B. and Coffey on the court.

“It’s a big deal to have a stretch four or even a three player that’s over 6’4 that can shoot the three because then the defense has to go, ‘are you honest,’” Wheeler said. “So if you stop me that means I have to kick back for the three. And Zahui B.’s been hitting them, Nia’s been hitting them, so it really opened the game up.”

And perhaps one of the biggest factors in the Sparks’ improved play has been their overall toughness. They began the season getting outrebounded by nearly 20 each game, but have made considerable progress in closing that gap. While they were outrebounded in their last two games, it was 34-27 against Indiana and 43-38 against Chicago.

Defensively, they’ve combined physicality and toughness with skill and have developed a little bit of a gritty, grind-it-out mentality. A big part of that is Zahui B. and Coffey contesting everything at the rim. But the wings have been active on that end as well. Brittney Sykes is becoming one of the best perimeter defensive players in the league and Te’a Cooper just did a solid overall job on Vandersloot.

Sparks head coach Derek Fisher has noticed this developing mentality and believes that the team must compete on a nightly basis.

“The way we want to compete every night, we have to play with a level of mental and physical toughness and grit. . .we really want to have that mentality on both ends of the floor,” Fisher said. “The great teams have that, and that was something we’ve missed in the past. We just have to continue to find what the balance is between being able to play with that combined with good skill and good execution and good understanding of what we want to do.”

Several of the new players the Sparks have brought in such as Coffey, Wheeler, and Zahui B. all help add the element of physicality and toughness to the team. But there’s one player who was on the roster last season who already embodies that type of play perfectly, and has helped the team further embrace that tough identity.

Sykes, who always makes sure opposing offensive players feel her when she’s guarding them, has loved what she’s seen out of this team in their most recent wins.

“I love it, I like stuff like that. All those things add up. . .you need that when you’re playing a team twice. Those moments when you think, ‘oh I’m going to let them get the rebound,’ that’s one more inch of energy that we’re giving them,” Sykes said after a recent practice. “Now those are teams are like, ‘man, they’re tough, we got to catch them on a bad day.’ I love it, I like dogs on my team.”