LOS ANGELES-It took a while to get there, but the Los Angeles Sparks have climbed the mountain of uncertainty that they may have had at the beginning of the season to now enjoying basketball elation after clinching a playoff berth on the road to a possible WNBA championship run.
The Sparks have plenty of reasons to smile after beating the Tulsa Shock, 92-73, at Staples Center to snag that coveted postseason spot.
One big reason the Sparks can smile these days is having forward Candace Parker on their side. Without the multi-talented Parker in the lineup for the first half of the season , the Sparks were slow coming out of the gate when it came to the win column, losing their first seven games. Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better.
For coach Brian Agler, who coached the Seattle Storm to an WNBA title in 2010, things could not have gotten any worse than the 3-14 start the Sparks ran off. Since then, however, the Sparks have been a different team. There was one key missing ingredient the team was lacking during that first half stretch, and that was that one offensive weapon that could get them over the hump in close games.
If the final two home games against the Washington Mystics and Tulsa Shock is any kind of indicator, Parker, and all of her 6-foot-3 frame, was the missing component as the Sparks worked on clinching a playoff berth, a notion that may have seemed out of the realm of possibility early on.
“I think we can play better,” Parker said. “Everybody is feeling good, but I think our better basketball and our best basketball is still ahead of us. So now it’s just about getting wins and continuing to get better and learning. You know, we have a tendency to kind of let up, and you can’t do that in the playoffs. We have to close out games better.”
Against the Mystics, Parker rallied for 26 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. But those numbers don’t really do Parker any kind of justice as far as impact on the game. Fellow forward Nneka Ogwumike was just as productive as Parker, going for 24 points and 10 rebounds against the Mystics.
The fluidity of the Sparks’ offense has picked up considerably since Parker’s return, and that was on display against the Mystics and Shock.
The Mystics came out on fire, bouncing to a big double-digit lead. The Sparks, with Parker leading the way, surged back from their large deficit to score 50 points in the final two quarters to upend the Mystics, 93-91. During that span, the Sparks held the Mystics to just 38 points in the second half to pull out the narrow victory.
Parker, with her knack for coming up with the big play in critical moments, calmly did what a two-time league MVP is supposed to do: lead the way. A mid-range jumper here, a behind-the-back assist there, and snatching rebounds everywhere, Parker controlled the floor in the fourth quarter to help the Sparks take down a feisty Mystics team.
It was almost the same scenario played out in the home finale against the Shock. However, this time, Parker and the Sparks didn’t need to be pushed to the last second to claim the win. With the postseason riding on the game, the Sparks took care of business early and cruised to what looked like an easy win. Parker was even more dominant in this game, scoring a game-high 33 points, grabbing eight rebounds and producing five assists.
Ogwumike was also on point for the Sparks, scoring 26 points and pulling down nine rebounds against the Shock to add that extra layer of dominance for the Sparks. The Sparks, however, had their moments of anxiety after allowing the Shock to creep back into the game before extending their lead back to double figures. That is something the team has to continue to fight through, Parker said.
“Just mental with our team, just raising your level of focus as the game continues no matter what the score,” Parker said. “That’s been our achilles heel all year. If you noticed, we were up, even as well as we played in the last game against Washington, we were up nine with a minute something. We ended up having to depend on Ivory (Latta) to miss a three for us to go down and get the win. That shouldn’t happen with a team like us. So I was proud of the way that we were able to close our game.”