Derek Fisher benching Candace Parker in must-win game will lead Sparks' offseason chatter

Los Angeles Sparks' head coach Derek Fisher talks to Los Angeles Sparks' Candace Parker (3) during a WNBA basketball game between Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx in Los Angeles, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. The Sparks won 77-68. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Los Angeles Sparks' head coach Derek Fisher benched Candace Parker for most of an elimination game on Sunday night in the WNBA semifinals. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Derek Fisher did not have himself a good Sunday night.

The five-time NBA champion and first-year Los Angeles Sparks coach watched as his team was once again dominated by the Connecticut Sun and swept out of the playoffs in the semifinals after a 78-56 loss in game 3.

The No. 2 Sun had a phenomenal year and were riding extra motivation into this series, but Fisher made some eye-raising decisions that only added to questions about why general manager Penny Toler hired him at all. The guiding thesis of this series was the No. 3 Sparks would be buoyed by their experience while inexperience might sink the Sun.

When the Sparks needed experience the most in an elimination game Sunday night in front of the home fans, Fisher benched two-time league MVP and 2016 WNBA champion Candace Parker in an odd move that will lead the conversation into the offseason.

Parker spends most of game 3 on the bench

Parker, 33, scored a basket and assisted on another to give the Sparks a very early 4-2 lead, but made two bad passes that resulted in steals and points for the Sun.

Fisher benched her for three minutes late in the first, bringing in Chiney Ogumwike as the tie moved to a 11-6 Sun lead. The Sparks came within three points when she returned, though she then missed free throws and a put-back to tie the game. Behind only 14-11, she was benched to start the second and sat the entire quarter.

Parker came back to start the third trailing by eight, 40-32, and played four minutes during which she had an assist and missed 5-foot jumper. Ogumwike again came in for her, the Sparks down 51-36 with 5:54 left in the quarter, and Parker’s night was over. She was caught by cameras asking “Why would he do that right now” after coming to the bench.

She had four points on 2-of-6 shooting, missed two free throws and had three rebounds and two assists.

Parker: ‘That’s for Fish’

Parker completed her 12th WNBA season and throughout the game, there was at least a possibility the veteran was on the bench due to her own requests or an injury issue. A leader knows when taking herself out of a game is in the benefit of the team.

The post-game interviews are an indication that’s not the case.

“That’s for Fish(er) [to answer],” Parker said when asked if she was surprised at her lack of minutes.

Parker, drafted out of the University of Tennessee in 2008, is nearing the end of her career. It’s fair to ask how near now.

Fisher answers why Parker sat

Fisher’s explanation to the media after the game didn’t really answer anything. He compared Parker’s 11 minutes to her teammates’ marks to argue that it was about doing anything to get energy.

Fisher told the media:

“I was just trying to do as much as I could in the moment to help the team. We talked before the game ... It wasn’t an injury or anything specific as to why I wasn’t going to play Candace. I was just trying to find energy, find spark, find physicality and things we were continuing to try to search for throughout the course of the game. We’ve had an issue sustaining energy over 40 minutes against this team in this series. [It was] also just getting fresh bodies in so we could continue to bang and rebound and run the floor, communicate defensively.

“It wasn’t any way to single her out ... It was about doing something different that I thought could help us win.”

Chelsea Gray, one of the league’s best point guards, played a team-high 29 minutes, despite a tough match-up against Jasmine Thomas’ defense, and went 3-of-13 for seven points with four assists. Nneka Ogumwike led the team with 17 points on 7-of-15 shooting and six rebounds over 27 minutes.

Riquna Williams (0-of-5, 4 rebounds, 1 point) played 18 minutes and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt (2-of-5, 3 rebounds, four points) played 13 minutes.

Chiney Ogumwike had 20 minutes off the bench and went 1-for-4 with two rebounds, one assist, two steals.

Why sitting Parker seemed odd

Fisher’s answer only opened more questions. Her teammates were also struggling and the Sparks seemed to lack much fight in game 3. As the Las Vegas Aces proved minutes before, a 2-0 series deficit does not mean it’s over.

Parker admittedly did not have a great postseason, especially compared to her past. She scored 24 points in 31 minutes during game 1 against the Sun, but posted three points in 26 minutes of game 2. Combined with the second-round elimination game against the Seattle Storm, she averaged 23.5 minutes, 10.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists over four games shooting .545 from the floor, including .333 from 3-point range, and .333 (2-of-6) from the free throw line.

In brutal honestly, the entire team did not have a great postseason. Those averages (except for minutes played) are all second-best for the Sparks in the postseason.

So while Parker certainly wasn’t the player of the 2016 championship-winning Sparks, her benching was still surprising. The Sparks were rarely able to play with the same starting five this season due to injury, and it created a deep bench of experienced players, but putting one of the league’s best on the sidelines when it’s down to the wire is odd.

Odd postseason for Fisher

Keeping Parker on the bench was only one of Fisher’s “what are you doing?!” moments. Late in the game, ESPN shared a clip inside the coach’s huddle where Fisher simply urged his team to play harder.

That didn’t sit well with ESPN commentator Rebecca Lobo, who called him out for it on the broadcast.

He emptied his bench in the fourth quarter despite it being a must-win game. And during the end of game 1 he and Alyssa Thomas got into it on the sideline. He was called for a technical foul and Thomas only said afterward that the coach told her some things she didn’t agree with.

Per The Athletic’s Molly Yanity, Fisher guaranteed in colorful language the Sparks would win game 2.

For a team that has built a postseason run largely on the idea they are disrespected, that was a huge miscue that only set the stage for more heading into a long offseason of more questions.

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