Sparks must rise above regular-season issues to beat Mercury in playoffs

Sparks went 0-5 against Phoenix Mercury in regular season, must overcome issues to win playoff series

The Sparks know heartbreak, and they know it at the hands of the Phoenix Mercury.

In the last five seasons, the Mercury have dispatched the Sparks twice from the playoffs and now they'll meet in the first round for the second year in a row.

Game 1 is Friday in Phoenix (7 p.m., TV: TWC SportsNet, TWC Deportes), with the Sparks, seeded fourth, facing the top-seeded Mercury in the best-of-three games series.

Last year, the Mercury sent the Sparks home for the season with a 78-77 win in Game 3.

Sparks General Manager and Coach Penny Toler is hoping her team is tough enough to produce a different result.

"You're only as strong as your weakest link," Toler said. "So whether you're playing or not playing, you have to prepare yourself as if you're going to go in the game. Mentally, you have to be there. That's the difference when it comes to playoffs."

The Sparks didn't have any luck against the Mercury in the regular season — Phoenix swept all five games on their way to a 29-5 record.

"I don't care what we did in the regular season," Toler said. "It's zero-zero now, and they're facing the same scenario we're facing: win or go home."

The Sparks (16-18) had a pedestrian regular season, but had a chance at the third seeding after late season wins against the Minnesota Lynx and the Seattle Storm, only to lose to the Mercury in their final regular season game.

This season the good times didn't come in big enough bunches for the Sparks, who never won more than three games in a row, and Toler succeeded Carol Ross as head coach on July 20.

"We have people supporting us amid all the craziness," Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike said. "Everyone thinks that there's just so much going on on our team, but at the end of the day we have each other's backs and that has never wavered throughout the whole season."

Still, the Sparks have a chance in the playoffs to rise above their regular season problems. "This has been a very, very challenging … year, but at the end of the day, it still boils down to tough times don't last, tough people do," Toler said.

The Sparks will face a tough Phoenix lineup, with five players averaging double-digits in scoring, including guard Diana Taurasi (16.2 ppg), center Brittney Griner (15.6) and forward Candice Dupree (14.5).

Forward/center Candace Parker led the Sparks with 19.4 points per game, third-best in the WNBA during the regular season, followed by Ogwumike with 15.8 points per game.

"If we can get it in a transition game, I think we play better when we play fast," Parker said. "I think that's to our advantage, and if we're able to attack them from the paint. If we get a lot of paint points against this team, we'll put ourselves in a good position."

Beneath the game plan, however, lies one essential element if the Sparks want to dish out heartbreak rather than feel it.

"This will be a game of wills," Toler said. "Just like last year, when they beat us by one point, the difference has always been a bucket here or a bucket there, and I look for this series to be the same."

Follow Samantha Zuba on Twitter @szuuuubes

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