Sparks fall out of playoff position with loss to Sun

The Sparks boosted their playoff hopes by bullying past bottom-feeding teams but couldn’t score a much-needed win against the league-leading Connecticut Sun on Thursday.

After giving up 12 unanswered points across the third and fourth quarters, the Sparks lost 76-72 to momentarily drop out of playoff position before a rematch in Connecticut on Saturday. The Sun (19-6) extended their lead at the top of the WNBA standings with their seventh-straight win while improving their record at home to 12-1 this year.

Meanwhile, the Sparks have lost back-to-back games at the halfway point of a pivotal six-game road trip.

The Sparks (10-15) lifted themselves into playoff contention with four straight wins after the Olympic break, beating the league’s 12th-, 11th- and eighth-place teams by an average 3.75 points. Momentum appeared to be building as the nail-biting victories put the Sparks in a tie for eighth in the league.

Now, they’re on the outside of the playoff picture looking in after the Sun closed out a physical game behind 23 points from Brionna Jones and 22 points and 11 rebounds from Jonquel Jones.

The pair of All-Stars outscored all five Sparks starters, who, led by 13 points from Nneka Ogwumike, had just 41 points combined. Instead, it was forward Nia Coffey’s 18 points, including 10 in the fourth, that kept the Sparks in it before Jonquel Jones, an MVP candidate, hit a layup with 18 seconds remaining to squash the comeback attempt.

Ogwumike made six of nine shots from the field but failed to shoot a free throw for the second straight game, prompting skepticism from head coach Derek Fisher, who pointed out that the 6-foot-2 forward has now taken just five free throws in 196 minutes over the last six games.

Ogwumike is averaging 1.8 free throw attempts per game, a career-low for the 2016 WNBA most valuable player who is averaging the third-most minutes per game of her 10-year career. The WNBPA president said before Thursday’s game the lack of foul calls makes her feel unsafe and unprotected on the court.

“I just do what I can to make sure that that isn’t in my mind but it’s also not a reason why any one game ends up the way it does,” Ogwumike told reporters, acknowledging her answer may get her fined by the WNBA. “I think for me, my experience the last five games, it hasn’t been ideal, but I’m a competitor and I try my best to really just focus on the game and be the best that I can for my teammates.”

Ogwumike was whistled for two fouls in the first quarter against the Sun, sending her to the bench early and limiting her to just six points in the first half.

The Sparks, who turned the ball over 15 times Thursday, had three straight turnovers late in the third quarter, which helped the Sun score nine consecutive points. The home team carried the momentum into the fourth and built an eight-point lead with 2:31 remaining.

“I just think we were rushing,” said guard Erica Wheeler, who had 13 points and nine assists. “We were trying to get out in transition when we should have just stayed composed and ran something, but that’s learning things. Those things can be fixed.”

The Sparks get a re-do on Saturday against the Sun before continuing their road trip in Indiana on Tuesday and finishing the 15-day trek in Minnesota on Thursday. Once they return to Staples Center on Sept. 9 against the Sun, they'll have just four regular-season games left.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.