The defending 2016 WNBA champions, the Los Angeles Sparks, start their journey to make it two championships in a row when they take on the Phoenix Mercury Tuesday, September 12 at the Staples Center. They have the chance to win back-to-back titles, which hasn’t been done in the league for 15 years when coincidentally, Lisa Leslie and the Sparks of the early 2000s won it in 2001 and 2002. They have some momentum going into the playoffs, finishing the regular season on a 7-game winning streak but missed some time waiting for the first two rounds to finish because of a playoff bye. Sparks player Candace Parker is looking forward to the playoffs; the team had a possible playoff warm-up when they last played the Minnesota Lynx.
“It’s fun to play in an atmosphere like that,” said center Candace Parker, who led L.A. with 24 points and 10 rebounds. “It’s fun to play with the team we have, and to play the Lynx. We both know each other so well. It’s like playing chess, and I love that.
“I hope things are clicking going into playoffs. I know that I have to be aggressive and assertive, and I’m able to do that now. I’m healthy, moving well, and I feel good.”
Standing in the Sparks way is a feisty Phoenix Mercury team led by Diana Taurasi and Britney Griner. The Mercury upset the Connecticut Sun to advance but during the regular season went 0-3 versus the Sparks. The Sparks’ success starts with stars Nneka Ogwumike (18.8 PPG, 7.7 RPG) and Parker (16.9, 7.2), who’ve worked well together in the post. Parker is also averaging 4.3 assists per game, second on the team only to point guard Chelsea Gray’s 4.4.
A key factor for the Sparks in the playoffs will be their defense. According to the Basketball Power Index, the Sparks’ expected defensive contribution is more than double that of Minnesota, the team with the top record in the league. L.A. won its final seven games of the season by allowing an average of 69 points per game, a stretch that included wins against the other three semifinal teams. One of the pillars of their stout defense, Alana Beard, is tasked with defending the top scorer on the opposing team and will likely be assigned to Taurasi, guarding her and others along the perimeter, her specialty.
“Being engaged with what you’re doing on the court is respecting the game in my opinion, and I’ll never take it for granted, ever,” Beard said.
“I respect the game so much, and I respect my teammates, and I understand that they work just as hard as me. So, if I’m not doing my job, I’m taking away from them. So, it’s a matter of respect and not taking anything for granted.”
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