Los Angeles Times

‘Stick together’ is Sparks’ mantra

Team tries to remain focused on playoff chase after Cambage departs abruptly.

- By Thuc Nhi Nguyen

The Sparks started the season with the mantra “time to show.” Center Liz Cambage, coming off an unceremoni­ous split with the Australian national team before the Tokyo Olympics and moving to her fourth WNBA team, was credited with pitching the slogan to the marketing team and her teammates. With the controvers­ial star gone, the Sparks have quickly adopted a new rallying cry.

“Just stick together,” Nneka Ogwumike said Thursday after the Sparks lost 90-80 to the Phoenix Mercury in their first game since Cambage’s abrupt departure. “It was another obstacle for us to figure out how we can stick together, and that’s really what it’s all about. That’s kind of been our motto this whole season.”

Trying to overcome the ups and downs of a tumultuous season, the Sparks are trying to keep pace in a tight postseason race.

They hit another speed bump with Thursday’s loss as they slipped to seventh place behind Phoenix (13-16), which jumped from eighth to sixth. The Sparks (12-16) are tied with Dallas for the final two playoff positions, with Atlanta (12-17) half a game out.

If missing the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade and then firing their coach in the middle of the season didn’t signal how dramatical­ly the Sparks had fallen, then Cambage’s “contract divorce” announced Tuesday definitely will.

Beyond the current playoff push, the franchise faces a major overhaul this offseason. Derek Fisher’s successor will have to clean up the mess left by the former head coach and general manager that has turned the onceproud franchise into at best an afterthoug­ht and at worst a laughingst­ock.

The team’s own Twitter account tried to make light of the situation Thursday, tweeting a graphic of the 54-32 halftime score and an emoji of a nervous smile.

While Cambage was averaging just 13 points — her lowest scoring clip since her rookie season — the Sparks had built their offense on scoring in the paint with Ogwumike and Cambage. Facing the brunt of the Mercury’s defense, Ogwumike labored for 15 points, 11 rebounds and five assists on six-for-14 shooting.

Interim head coach Fred Williams said he hoped the team could transition more to a perimeter-oriented offensive game this week, but that strategy took a major hit with three-point sharpshoot­er Lexie Brown injuring her ankle after playing just two minutes. She didn’t return, and the Sparks went three for 21 from three-point range, including an 0-for-12 start.

The Sparks are the second-worst three-point shooting team in the WNBA, at 33.6%, and take the fewest three-pointers per game, at 16.6.

When asked whether the first game without Cambage revealed any major changes required for the final eight regular-season games, Williams made a lightheart­ed remark.

“Yeah, just putting the ball in the basket, that’s the drastic change,” Williams said. “Win or lose, it’s a matter of putting the ball in the basket.”

Chennedy Carter carried the offense off the bench with a season-high 23 points on eight-for-10 shooting. The third-year guard was coming off a 15-point performanc­e against Las Vegas last weekend, her first game after a knee injury kept her sidelined for three weeks.

Carter was one of the Sparks’ intriguing offseason acquisitio­ns after the former Atlanta guard sat out most of last season because of a suspension for unspecifie­d conduct detrimenta­l to the team. Chemistry issues were a concern, especially with the combustibl­e Cambage.

But Carter is playing with something to prove.

“Playing for the WNBA, it means a lot, and actually playing for Los Angeles,” the 23-year-old said. “So to be out there every moment, it’s a big opportunit­y and I never want to waste it.”

Amid the dramatic season, Carter credited veteran teammates such as Ogwumike for helping her stay focused on the court and embrace her role of a high-energy bench player.

“I want y’all to know that we’re going through a lot,” Carter said, “but we got a lot of great vets, a lot of great leaders who are keeping our circle tight.”

 ?? Barry Gossage NBAE/Getty Images ?? JASMINE WALKER takes a shot against the Mercury in the Sparks’ first game without Liz Cambage.
Barry Gossage NBAE/Getty Images JASMINE WALKER takes a shot against the Mercury in the Sparks’ first game without Liz Cambage.

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