LAS VEGAS — The Los Angeles Sparks poured it on the Las Vegas Aces in the fourth quarter Sunday afternoon at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. The Sparks outscored the Aces 35-15 after entering the period with a one-point lead.
“I think today was an example of us not being there quite yet, mental toughness-wise. We really didn’t play well for three quarters and then we laid an egg in the fourth quarter,” Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer said postgame.
“[The Sparks] execute under pressure. We didn’t,” he added.
Alana Beard did not play Sunday due to a strained groin suffered in Thursday’s game against the Dallas Wings. Odyssey Sims replaced Beard in the starting lineup for the Sparks.
More from Sunday’s game:
CP3 lights it up
Candace Parker dominated both ends of the floor Sunday afternoon, turning in one of the best all-around performances of the 2018 season. Parker finished with 34 points on 12-of-21 shooting, hitting five of eight from beyond the arc.
She had posted 14 points, five rebounds and four assists in the first quarter. Then as the Sparks blew it open in the fourth, Parker scored another 13 points to go with three assists.
In addition to carrying a heavy burden offensively, Parker was matched up with A’ja Wilson for much of the night. Wilson shot just 6-of-20 from the field.
The referees drew the ire of the Vegas faithful throughout for how their star forward was officiated. Wilson never got going from the midrange, and Parker and her teammates stayed in enough plays when Wilson put her head down to get to the rim.
Learning experience for Aces young star
Laimbeer was very direct postgame in addressing Wilson’s performance. Though he made it clear Sunday’s game should not be labeled as a learning experience for his team, he hopes Wilson will learn from the rough outing.
“Learning experience? No. For A’ja Wilson, hopefully,” Laimbeer said. “After the game I made it clear to her and the team that she can’t put her head down like that. It was clear to everybody on her team and everybody in the gym that she missed an couple of shots, became disengaged from the game and dragged the rest of the team down.
“For the undisputed leader of our ball club, that cannot happen. I think that was made very clear to her. She understands it. We’re going to find out how she deals with it.”
Kayla McBride spoke on Wilson’s struggles as well, saying, “She has to learn that there’s so much more to the game that she can contribute to other than just making shots. There are so many things that happen in every single play, so the biggest thing I’m trying to teach her is to just get to the next play and have a short-term memory. She’s a rookie, she’s played a lot of games already and I’m trying to get her to just focus and lock in.
“That’s something she’s going to have to learn, but I think she’s done a great job this year. She has to try to not be so hard on herself,” McBride added.
Fair or not, Wilson shouldered the blame for Sunday’s loss, saying, “I take full blame for tonight, I didn’t engage the way I needed to be engaged and it showed. I can’t afford to do that for my team, so in the stretch it was all about mental toughness and I take full blame for it because I was not good.
“I get really really down on myself if I miss a shot,” Wilson added. “I don’t like missing shots and that’s unrealistic because of course you’re going to miss shots. I get inside my own head when I miss shots and I can’t afford to do that for my team or for myself. In the league that we play in, you just have to keep pushing.”
That push continues Thursday in Phoenix for Wilson and the Aces; Vegas has just two games remaining before the All-Star break.
Perfect night for Gray
Parker dominated the game from all over the floor, but Gray added the scoring balance that makes the Sparks so difficult to guard. The All-WNBA guard shot 9-of-9 from the field (including a tough three-pointer over Wilson from the top of the key) and dished six assists in 34 minutes.
Anytime another member of the Sparks really has it going, the slightest windows to attack for Gray become much larger because of her well-rounded game. She can take smaller guards to the rim and hang to finish over them, drag people down into the post, fill it up from deep, or cook in isolation late in the clock.
Carson, invaluable as ever
After the Aces had struck first, jumping out to a 6-2 lead, Carson drilled a three from the right wing. The veteran wing shot 3-of-4 from deep and came away with three steals in a game-high 36 minutes.
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In Carson, the Sparks had a long, physical defender to throw at Kayla McBride (18 points, 7-18 FG, two assists). McBride had to work hard to get free in the halfcourt, especially in the second half — four of her seven buckets came in the first 13 minutes of the game either on the break or in semi-transition.
Through Sunday’s game, Carson is on track to have her best overall shooting season. She’s also getting up more three-pointers. Her current three-point rate of 43.1 is the highest of her career by a long shot (via Basketball Reference).
Once Beard re-joins the lineup, the Sparks will once again have two of the top wing defenders in the league. And with Carson knocking down shots from the outside, the 2018 Sparks will have another element that they did not have last year as the race for a top-two playoff seed heats up.