Three weeks of home cooking helped the Sparks go from outside of the postseason picture to playoff pole position.
The Sparks finished their seven-game homestand on Thursday with an 85-78 win over the Atlanta Dream, jumping into sixth place in a tight playoff race of five teams vying for three postseason berths.
Nneka Ogwumike, two days after dropping a season-high 35 against the Indiana Fever, led the Sparks with 20 points on nine-of-11 shooting. Chiney Ogwumike had a season-high 15 points with seven rebounds as the Sparks (12-14) evened the season-series against the Dream.
After landing on the wrong end of a three-game tiebreaker and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011, the Sparks know the importance of winning these critical matchups. Instead of focusing on the entire standings, guard Brittney Sykes whittles the playoff race down to series against individual teams. The technique is something she learned while playing for Atlanta for former coach Nicki Collen and prevents Sykes from getting overwhelmed by the entire season. It’s her hack to handle the season.
“It’s a numbers game,” Sykes said this month.
The Sparks have 2-1 regular-season series leads against eighth-place Dallas (11-14) and ninth-place Phoenix (11-16) with one road game left against each opponent this season and are tied 1-1 against Minnesota, which is in 10th place with a 10-17 record. The deciding game against the Dream (12-15) comes Aug. 5 in Atlanta.
After a 77-75 loss to Atlanta prompted the Sparks’ five-game losing streak earlier this season, the Sparks used a balanced effort and four double-digit scorers to even the series. Katie Lou Samuelson and Sykes each added 12 points as the Sparks finished the homestand with back-to-back victories, including a short-handed win against the Fever on Tuesday that featured just eight Sparks players.
“As the numbers going low, we just stick together, we bring our circle closer together,” forward Jasmine Walker said at practice Wednesday. “Everybody on our team, eight players, five players or not, everybody is capable of doing the same thing.”
The Sparks welcomed reinforcements Thursday as guard Chennedy Carter (knee) played for the first time since July 1 and center Liz Cambage returned from health and safety protocols. Carter was limited to just 12 minutes off the bench but made them count with seven points, an assist and two steals.
The Sparks scored 26 points on 21 Atlanta turnovers.