Sparks rally in series opener against Mercury

Fourteen years ago, a rivalry now overflowing with mutual respect took root in the first game that mattered between Alana Beard of Duke and Diana Taurasi of Connecticut, then college juniors and acquaintances since ninth grade.

Fast-forward, dozens of duels later, to Tuesday night at Staples Center. Moments after the Sparks’ Beard accepted the award for WNBA defensive player of the year, she and Phoenix’s Taurasi squared off again, this time in the first game of a best-of-five semifinal series.

Beard induced an airball on Taurasi’s first shot, a harbinger of the Sparks’ 79-66 triumph over the Mercury.

Mostly matched up against Taurasi, Beard helped limit her to six points, vastly below an average of 18.5, with as many baskets (two) as airballs.

“One of the fiercest competitors I’ve ever seen,” Taurasi said of Beard. “She just competes on every play and gives you different looks. No one deserves that award more.”

Beard summoned enough energy in between chasing Taurasi to account for 11 points, four higher than her norm. She too launched an airball with Taurasi’s hand in the line of sight, but it was her lone errant try.

“I’ve been playing against her for a long time,” Beard wrote of Taurasi on the Players’ Tribune website, “but no matter how many times I’ve faced her, it doesn’t get any easier.”

Elaborating Tuesday, Beard said, “She continues to get better. It’s her work ethic, her attention to detail.”

Informed of the article, Taurasi smiled and said, “She might change her mind after tonight. I just played like crap. I’m not going to sugarcoat it.”

Mercury coach Sandy Brondello, while noting surprise at learning that Beard’s league-wide defensive laurel was her first, attributed Taurasi’s dreadful night in part to tired legs from enduring three postseason games in as many cities over five nights.

“And we’ve got to try and help her get open too,” Brondello said.

Beard draws no extra motivation from following Taurasi in the 2004 draft, when they were selected first and second. A fresher memory drives her.

“In 2010, I was told I might never play again,” she said, alluding to a trove of injuries that threatened her career. “I don’t like being told what I can’t do.”

The Sparks withstood 18 points from scoring champion Brittney Griner, who eventually began hacking more than scoring and fouled out after logging only 29 minutes.

With Griner out of the equation, the Sparks broke out of a halftime tie and built their most substantial lead just before the final buzzer.

A Hall & Oates concert has dibs on Staples Center on Thursdsay, so the series detours to Long Beach State for Game 2.

In Game 1 of the other semifinal series, Seimone Augustus scored 24 points to help the Minnesota Lynx beat the Washington Mystics 101-81.

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