It was a record-breaking win for the Sparks.
LOS ANGELES – Nneka Ogwumike had 31 points and 10 rebounds, and she didn’t even have the most noteworthy stat line of any Spark Sunday when Los Angeles beat Washington 98-81.
That honor belonged to Chelsea Gray, who recorded the eighth triple-double in WNBA history with 13 points, a career-high 13 assists, and a career-high 10 rebounds. Her assists led to 34 points, as the Sparks were on fire from beyond the arc. Los Angeles hit 16-of-31 threes, setting a franchise record and finishing one shot shy of the league mark.
Washington’s Kristi Toliver, who knows Gray and Ogwumike’s games as well as anyone, having won a title with the pair in 2016, thought the Sparks were all able to use their strengths in the win.
“They got going and they were able to be the best version of themselves,” Toliver said.
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Gray was in her element throughout the game, doing a nice job of using the threat of her isolation scoring to get open looks for her teammates, whether off drive and kicks or just dribble handoffs where the defenders stayed glued to her. Gray was also able to go 1-on-1 into the paint on multiple occasions thanks to the spacing provided by her teammates.
Head coach Derek Fisher is relying heavily on Gray to set the tone early for Los Angeles, often leaving her in the game for the entirety of the first quarter to get the offense humming. On top of her halfcourt distribution, when Gray is rebounding the ball and running the break, good things happen for the Sparks.
“I think Chelsea is one of the better rebounding guards in this league. Like she loves to get rebounds. Why? Because she loves to push. When she gets it, she’s gone. And she’s hitting people,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “I think that’s the common denominator. When she rebounds, our transition’s better. When our transition’s better, our defense is better. When our defense is better, offense is better. And it all starts with rebounding. So whoever gets it is important, but the fact that Chelsea is that versatile, where she can play on ball defense, get the rebound, find another shooter or score for herself. She’s like the heartbeat, of our team.”
Gray’s best game of the season (she was an astounding plus-29 in her 34 minutes) coincided with special nights for her teammates as well. The passing sequences between her, Nneka Ogwumike, and Candace Parker were beautiful to watch, demonstrating a chemistry from years of playing together.
“I crossed myself. I was like, that was a holy play right there,” Sydney Wiese said about the above sequence. “There were definitely some times where I was like, these are some of the best to ever play that I get to be with daily, that I get to know and then ultimately get to play with and learn from. Every day that’s how they play. They don’t turn it on or off. That’s just how good they are.”
Nneka Ogwumike continues to show off her expanded range in her eighth WNBA season. She hit 5-of-7 threes, including four in the first quarter when the Mystics were still flummoxed at how to defend her on the perimeter. On one possession, Gray drew two defenders on a foray into the post, and Ogwumike’s eyes lit up as she waited for Gray to flip the ball back out to her for an uncontested wing three, which she promptly nailed.
Ogwumike’s improved volume from three-point range is emblematic of the whole team. Riquna Williams had five makes, benefitting from the open looks she gets playing alongside Gray in the starting lineup and her stone-cold confidence to launch with even an inch of space. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt had two triples that came off of swing passes in the flow of the offense. And Wiese had two threes, even pulling up for one as she side-stepped her defender and let it rip.
That balance is something Fisher was hoping for when he got the job this year. The Sparks have always had tremendous individual talent, but he wanted the benefits of those performances to trickle down to other members of the roster, making the team harder to guard as a whole.
“When we can score 98 points, and Candace only shoots the ball eight times, that’s the type of overall offensive freedom, that we feel like, over the course of a season and if we’re fortunate enough to be in the postseason, it’s hard to scout and game plan for a team that offensively uses everybody,” Fisher said. “That’s the type of team that we want to be. We don’t want people to be able to load up on the players that have the biggest names. We want everybody to be a threat out there.”
When Gray and Ogwumike are going like they are, it might not matter that everyone else up and down the roster contributes. Their individual excellence stole the show, and without Elena Delle Donne for most of the game, Washington had no way of keeping pace. This is the idealized version of what the Sparks hoped to be when they assembled their roster, and when everything is clicking, it’s a sight to behold.
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