Three takeaways: Sparks surge late from 17 down to top Mystics

The defending champion Los Angeles Sparks were tested at home Sunday by the Mystics. Some timely stops and threes helped LA cut into that lead and come away with a big win over the team with the third best record in the WNBA. Three things from Sunday’s action:

The Sparks weren’t going to let Kristi Toliver get loose

Playing in LA for just the second time as a member of the Mystics, Toliver was guarded closely by Alana Beard for most of Sunday afternoon. Toliver didn’t get a decent look off from the outside until the closing moments of the third.

Elena Delle Donne carried the scoring load in the first half and had 20 by the middle of the third. With extra focus on Toliver, Washington needed to find a spark elsewhere to create some shots.

Emma Meesseman returned to WNBA action Sunday coming off the bench. Her first stint coincided with a Washington push late in the first and into the second. Meesseman was able to set some screens to create some favorable switches for Delle Donne to take a guard down onto the block.

Sparks shooters stayed ready

Los Angeles shot just 36% from the field in the first half. The Mystics took 14 trips to the line; the Sparks only had three. Nneka Ogwumike picked up her fourth foul prior to the half. The Mystics had successfully sucked some air out of the home crowd.

Coming out of halftime, Delle Donne began to see doubles on the catch and a few stops led to some run-outs for the Sparks. The home crowd at Staples really came alive after back-to-back threes by Riquna Williams in the 3rd.

Delle Donne went to the bench with 3:30 left in the third and Washington’s offense stagnated. The Sparks sped the Mystics up and things began to loosen up offensively. Chelsea Gray put in her own back-to-back threes and just like that, LA headed into crunch time with a slim lead.

LOS ANGELES, CA – JULY 02: Elena Delle Donne

The value of spacing with movement

The Sparks held possession out of a break up by two inside 2:00. Candace Parker got it near the left elbow. Chelsea Gray came up the lane to set a backscreen for Ogwumike, sending the defense into scramble mode:

Are you switching? Is Gray about to drill another three? How do we cover up Ogwumike under the rim? Who’s dropping into the late to help, knowing Parker has the size and vision to find the open shooter? A beat later, Parker fired it to Ogwumike for an easy lay in.

Few teams put as much constant pressure on a defense as the Sparks when they’re really humming. Without needing clunky sets that take too long to get into, the Sparks found Williams, Gray, and Beard alone along the arc for those big shots that got them that late lead.

The continuity of LA can’t be overlooked in their ability to score 80+ with ease. Washington doesn’t have that yet, but as mentioned, Meesseman just got back. Coach Mike Thibault has options in choosing his closing lineups to further explore. Natasha Cloud and Ivory Latta saw time late in favor of Tayler Hill.

The Mystics did plenty to disrupt and put pressure on the defending champs Sunday, certainly faring better than the previous meeting in May which the Sparks led by as much as 20. This time it was the Sparks playing catch up to prevail in a tight battle between two major contenders.