Sparks beat Dream to jump in standings as WNBA playoff race tightens

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LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 21: The Los Angeles Sparks celebrate during the game against the Atlanta Dream on July 21, 2022 at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)
The Sparks celebrate against the Atlanta Dream on Thursday at Crypto.com Arena. (Adam Pantozzi / NBAE via Getty Images)

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.

The Ogwumike sisters powered the Sparks to a series-tying win against the Dream. Older sister Nneka finished with 20 points on nine-for-11 shooting, and Chiney added 15 points and seven rebounds, five of which came on the offensive end.

The Sparks finished 4-3 during their extended homestand with all three losses coming against teams above them in the standings. The gap between fifth-place Washington and the sixth-place Sparks is four games while the Sparks (12-14) are only 2 1/2 games ahead of 10th-place Minnesota. 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 critical matchups like Thursday's.

“We wanted to learn from this [homestand] because we played some teams that are above us in the standings who are competing for a championship title and we just want to be in that mix,” interim head coach Fred Williams said. “And I think tonight, we showed ourselves that we can be in that mix.”

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 and are tied 1-1 against Minnesota (10-17). The deciding game against the Dream (12-15) comes Aug. 5 in Atlanta.

Chiney Ogwumike emerged as a critical X-factor during the past month, averaging 10.2 points and seven rebounds in six appearances during the homestand. The former No. 1 overall pick started the past four games, getting double-doubles in two and notching either double-digit rebounds or points in all four.

It’s a triumphant return for Ogwumike, who sat out of the 2020 season because of injury concerns during the pandemic and played just seven games last year because of a knee injury. Having not played consistently since 2019, the 30-year-old made a simple goal for herself this year: be available.

Sparks' Chiney Ogwumike drives to the basket during the game against the Atlanta Dream.
Sparks' Chiney Ogwumike (13) drives to the basket during the game against the Atlanta Dream on Thursday at Crypto.com Arena. (Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)

“If I’m available for my team, I’ve won the season,” said Ogwumike, who has played in 22 games. “So I feel like I’ve already won just because I’m there and that’s why I play free because I always tell people it’s bonus basketball for me.”

Although her older sister is the All-Star trying to make a most valuable player push, it's Chiney's performances that get her teammates the most hyped, Williams said. Part of the excitement when Ogwumike gets the ball is that even her teammates don’t know what she’s going to try.

“But we are probably going to get a bucket,” said center Liz Cambage, who returned from a two-game COVID-19 absence with eight points and five rebounds in 15 minutes off the bench.

Ogwumike shot, and made, a three-pointer Thursday, showed off her nimble footwork on a baseline spin move (although the layup slipped off the rim) and pushed the ball in transition occasionally. The perimeter skills are a new wrinkle as Ogwumike attempted just 10 three-pointers in her first five seasons in the WNBA, making five. This year, she is seven of 16 from three-point range.

The former Stanford star credited assistant coach Seimone Augustus and player development coach Jamal “Dash” Lovell for empowering her to expand her skill set.

“You have to learn to evolve with your game and that’s what this league forces you to do,” Ogwumike said.

Ogwumike even tried a Euro step that caught Williams’ eye Thursday. When a reporter mentioned the play that resulted in Ogwumike getting an offensive rebound and a putback, Ogwumike said she had only done the move once this season and it resulted in a pulled hamstring.

Cambage and guard Brittney Sykes burst out laughing.

“I know if something happens, they’re going to roast me,” Ogwumike said, shooting her teammates a side eye, “but I love it.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.