Sparks clinch playoff appearance with win over Dream

On one end, Brittney Sykes drew a blocking foul and hit two go-ahead free throws in the final two minutes. She grabbed a defensive rebound on the other end, then got open for a mid-range jumper. Then, after Chelsea Gray’s fadeaway mid-range dagger, Sykes blocked Chennedy Carter’s layup attempt.

For the second game in a row, Sykes provided the winning plays the Sparks needed to pull out a close win, this time an 84-79 victory over the Atlanta Dream.

“She’s still learning her way around our team, our roster, where she fits in offensively,” head coach Derek Fisher said. “But she really just takes a great deal of pride and ownership and accountability on the defensive end. That’s what really we love about her approach to the game.”

With their ninth win in a row, the Sparks (12-3) clinched their place in the WNBA playoffs, their 20th appearance in 24 seasons, a league record. The team circled around Gray as she danced on the court to celebrate the clinching victory.

“We’re playing for the person next to us and it’s been a sense of sisterhood,” Gray said. “We’re playing for a bigger purpose and we all understand that.”

It was an unusual first half for the Sparks, who trailed for most of the opening 20 minutes. While the team has largely relied on scoring from its starters and forcing turnovers, the L.A. bench scored 23 first-half points while the Dream only gave the ball away four times.

The bench production was big for the Sparks, which was playing the first half of a back-to-back, set to play the Minnesota Lynx on Monday in a make-up game after last week’s matchup was postponed.

Meanwhile, Sparks forward Candace Parker was the only member of the team who played in the first half and did not score any points, though she did add five first-half assists.

The Sparks briefly retook the lead with 47.4 seconds left in the half when Sydney Wiese, after a cross-court pass, ran the length of the baseline and got herself open in the corner for a go-ahead 3-pointer.

But Atlanta center Elizabeth Williams’ layup gave the Dream a 38-37 lead at the half.

The third quarter, though, was defined by streaks. The Sparks opened the third quarter with a 10-2 run to retake the lead, only for Atlanta (3-13) respond with a 12-4 run of its own.

The two teams traded baskets in the fourth quarter, with reserve forward Kristine Anigwe providing some key minutes off the bench with a couple of tough finishes in the paint.

“She deserves a ton of credit for keeping herself ready so that when the opportunity presented itself, she could go in and help her teammates and help the team win,” Fisher said.

Anigwe’s nine points and six rebounds would have been valuable any night, but especially on Sunday after former MVP Nneka Ogwumike sat out the entire second half with a back injury.

Fisher said that Ogwumike’s back tightened up on her in the first half. He said he wasn’t sure if it was back spasms, and she’d be evaluated in the morning to see if she can suit up against Minnesota.

But it was still a good night for the Sparks, with a win and playoff berth in hand.

” A short celebration,” Fisher said. “it’s great for players that haven’t experienced it in a while or ever to be able to celebrate it and just celebrating the small successes is still a positive thing.”

NEXT: Los Angeles Sparks at Minnesota Lynx

When: 7 p.m. Monday

Where: IMG Academy, Bradenton, Fla.

TV: CBS Sports Network, Spectrum SportsNet