The Los Angeles Sparks Have Mastered Clutch Time


Clinching a playoff spot Sunday, Los Angeles extended its winning streak to nine games. And while the Sparks lost on Monday to Minnesota, the nine-game winning streak was enough to cement their status as championship contenders.

At times, the Sparks have looked dominant. During others, the team has looked mortal. That is, until the last five minutes.

Against an 11th-ranked Atlanta Dream, Los Angeles went down to the wire. If not for some clutch play from Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray, and Britney Sykes, Los Angeles easily could have had its streak snapped. But they didn’t, and it never really felt like the outcome was in doubt. Not only because those players are all elite veterans, or that on paper the Sparks were the better team, or even that their five-time NBA champion head coach Derek Fisher was himself known for his clutch factor. Simply, Los Angeles has dominated clutch time all season.

The WNBA defines clutch time as the last five minutes with the point differential within five. In those games, Los Angeles is 6-2, which is tied with Minnesota for best in the league.

Gray, the Point Gawd, is known for being at her best in clutch moments throughout her career. This season, her usage rate has jumped from 24.5% to 29.9% in clutch time. She is also perfect on three attempts from behind the arc and the team’s leading scorer in clutch time.

The last four games of the streak all required clutch heroics for the Sparks to pull out victories.

First, Parker had to score as time expired to answer a Courtney Williams jumper that put the Dream ahead by two with 3.7 seconds in the teams’ first meeting on August 21st. Then in overtime, Los Angeles outscored Atlanta 12-4 to sneak out with the win. Gray accounted for 10 of those points, including 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions. That close call, though, was just the beginning.

In the next game against Dallas, Sykes made a jumper with 4:30 on the clock to give the Sparks their first lead since late in the second quarter. A 25-15 fourth quarter allowed Los Angeles to escape with an 84-81 win.

The story was remarkably similar against Connecticut, who had a fourth quarter lead but were outscored 21-13 in the final period and lost by four. Gray gave her team its first second half lead with a 3-pointer at 5:01, then doubled down on the next trip down the court. The Sun only made one field goal in the last two minutes as the Sparks put on the clamps.

On Sunday, in a rematch with the Dream, Los Angeles pulled away at the end. Chennedy Carter, in her second game back from an ankle injury that caused her to miss five games, scored 26 on 11-of-19, with 10 points coming in the fourth quarter. Still, Los Angeles bottled up the Atlanta offense when it counted the most. With 5:31 to go, Monique Billings tied the game at 72. Besides a lone Carter layup, the Sparks held the Dream scoreless until 1:01, and opened up an 80-74 lead.

As a team, the Sparks lead the league in points, field goals made, and steals in clutch time. Opponents are turning the ball over more than against any other team, and Los Angeles is coughing the ball up at the second lowest rate in the league. Los Angeles is also second in blocks, field goal percentage, 3-pointers made, and 3-point percentage. The numbers all back up the eye test — in clutch time, no one is better than the Sparks.

At the individual level, Gray and Parker are fifth and sixth on scoring average in clutch time, at 3.4 and 3.0 points per clutch time, respectively. Parker is shooting 9-of-13 from the field in clutch time and Gray is at 10-of-18.

Fisher has also refined his clutch time lineup. In Los Angeles’ 29 clutch minutes this season, which is third highest in the league, Parker has played in all 29 and Gray has played in 28. More importantly, the shots are being fed to those two. Of the team’s 52 clutch-time shots, 31 have been taken by either Parker or Gray. And of the 26 made shots, 19 have come from one of the two.

When Nneka Ogwumike is healthy, she provides a third option that solidifies the clutch rotation. While her shot rate is down — she has shot just four times in the clutch, making two — Los Angeles will need her to be ready down the wire in the playoffs.

The first time, or even the first few times, a Sparks win in clutch time could have been a fluke. But now, after watching Los Angeles win four straight in the final minutes, it seems pretty clear: the Sparks are clutch, and they’re ready for the playoffs.