Sparks holding their own as WNBA heads to home stretch

Sisters Chiney (13) and Nneka Ogwumike have been critical to L.A.'s success so far this season. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

With a core of two former No. 1 draft picks and a candidate for best point guard in the league, the Los Angeles Sparks should be doing just fine, right? Well, it's a little more complicated than that.

At 11-8 at the WNBA's All-Star break, the Sparks are still in position to end up as one of the top two teams in the league and get an accompanying playoff bye into the semifinals. Or they could hit a rough patch and have to fight for a postseason spot. This year, we've already seen both the good and the struggling versions of the Sparks, who play their first game since July 23 on Thursday at home against Las Vegas (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET).

In mid-June, they had a four-game losing streak that included a 29-point loss at home to Washington. But since June 27, the Sparks have been on a stretch in which they've won seven of nine, including a 17-point victory over the Mystics.

Derek Fisher, in his first season as Sparks coach, has been able to rely on sisters Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, who were top draft picks in 2012 and '14, respectively. He has also relied on the person who has played the most minutes for the Sparks thus far: point guard Chelsea Gray.

Nneka Ogwumike is averaging 16.6 points and 9.4 rebounds, and fellow forward Chiney is at 11.7 points and 7.4 rebounds. Gray is averaging 13.2 points and 5.5 assists and is the only Sparks player to start all 19 games.

They've been dependable all season. But what else is the key for the Sparks in August, during which they'll play 12 games, seven at home at the Staples Center?

"To put it obviously, we need more bodies," said Nneka Ogwumike, who along with Gray was an All-Star. "It's hard because you don't want to create any excuse. But it matters for chemistry. Having more bodies and a better rotation makes a difference."

Help could be on the way. Three players who've been out with injuries -- posts Candace Parker and Maria Vadeeva and guard Alexis Jones -- have been practicing this week and might be available Thursday.

Parker, guard/forward Alana Beard and Jones each have been limited to seven games this season due to leg injuries. Vadeeva has played just once, scoring 24 points in the Sparks' season-opening loss at Las Vegas on May 26. She then left to play for her native Russia in the EuroBasket championship and suffered a knee injury. Beard is expected to remain out, but the return of any of the four would be much welcomed.

There's also the absence of guard Riquna Williams, who was suspended on July 16 for 10 games because of her involvement in a domestic violence incident for which she is facing charges. In 15 games, Williams averaged 11.5 points and was the Sparks' top 3-point shooter, with 34 makes.

With a new coach and so many injuries, a lot of weight has been placed on the Ogwumikes and Gray.

"We have to just keep building our chemistry," Chiney Ogwumike said. "It's hard to win games when you don't know what your identity is, but I think we've done a good job of establishing what that is. We're all going to have to be in it together."

Nneka Ogwumike pointed out that rest and recovery have been important too for the short-handed Sparks, though they have taken away some practice time.

"We have a little less than half of the season left," she said. "And we have a lot of home games in August, which is going to make a difference. It will give us more practice opportunities.

"Teams are going to have to reestablish themselves in this post-All-Star Game stretch. It's a bunch of teams kind of at the same level, but in this league, the best are going to pull away."

Whether the Sparks can be one of those depends on if they can avoid more injuries and keep getting the most out of what they have.

"Everybody has to bring up their game a little bit," Gray said. "The off-the-court work is important. Sometimes we might be in the training room until midnight after a game trying to prepare for the next game.

"We also have to rely on our communication. Nneka and I have a lot of conversations about that, to fill that leadership void with Candace and Alana out. We want them on the court, obviously, but we have to focus on who's there."