Sparks miss injured Nneka Ogwumike in loss to Lynx

No Nneka Ogwumike, no problem?

Well, not really.

With the former MVP out with back soreness, the Los Angeles Sparks saw their nine-game winning streak come to an end on Monday with a resounding 96-78 loss to the rival Minnesota Lynx, matching L.A.’s most lopsided defeat of the season.

At first it seemed like the Sparks (12-4) might run away from the Lynx. L.A. led by seven after the first quarter, with Chelsea Gray contributing 11 points.

A Kristine Anigwe layup off a pick-and-roll action with Te’a Cooper pushed the Sparks’ lead to 11, and Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve called a timeout.

That’s when it all flipped.

Minnesota (11-5) went on a 24-3 run, with a Rachel Banham 3-pointer giving the Lynx the lead. While the Sparks made half of their first 22 shots, they missed 10 of their next 14 to close the first half down 49-40.

“They were hunting the paint and we didn’t come and help. You have easy finishes at the basket, they got into a rhythm and that’s where the game kind of changed,” said Gray, who finished with a team-high 18 points and five assists.

Ogwumike’s absence was felt throughout the score sheet, but was most acute on defense. Minnesota’s starting bigs, Napheesa Collier and Damiris Dantas, combined for 42 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists.

This led to Sparks coach Derek Fisher trying to get creative with his matchups, even having Gray, his starting point guard, try to defend Minnesota’s power forwards.

With Ogwumike out, the Sparks opted to go small and start 5-foot-11 Tierra Ruffin-Pratt in the power forward’s place. But Ruffin-Pratt struggled with foul trouble throughout the game and wound up playing under six minutes, contributing three assists and a lone rebound while missing her only field-goal attempt.

Reserve forward Kristine Anigwe had slightly better results on offense. She scored eight points on 4 for 5 shooting, but made little difference on the defensive end.

Fisher tried to down play the extent to which the Sparks missed Ogwumike in this game.

“We missed Nneka but I think we also made some mistakes and breakdowns that we still have to take responsibility for regardless of who’s out there,” the coach said. “It was just things that every player on our team is capable of doing that we didn’t do as well as we needed to in a lot of those situations tonight.”

It’s a game the Sparks would have loved to have; a win would have meant they held the tiebreaker over the Lynx. Instead, the two teams split the season series 1-1.

The Sparks clinched their playoff spot with Sunday’s win over Atlanta, so they can afford to rest Ogwumike, who is considered day-to-day, if need be. But if she can’t play Wednesday against the Dallas Wings, then the Sparks have some things to figure out in her absence.

“When you’re winning games, it kinda covers up some of the things that you aren’t doing so well,” Fisher said. “It’s just information that you need to learn in order to get better. And that’s what setbacks are. … So we’ll get some rest and recovery and hopefully we can come back and give ourselves a chance to get back on the winning side on Wednesday.”