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Sparks head into Storm with a hard-won confidence

The Sparks’ season has played out like a melodrama.

Their 1-6 start was the worst in franchise history. Days later, 2008 most valuable player and rookie of the year Candace Parker was lost for the season. Eleven days later, veteran guard Betty Lennox was lost too. Yet they won seven of their last 12 games to clinch a playoff berth.

“We had enough drama for four seasons combined, compacted into this one year,” forward DeLisha Milton-Jones said. “I’m just elated we made it to this point after everything we’ve been through.”

The Sparks (13-21) are in Seattle to take on the league-leading Storm (28-6) — undefeated on its home court — in the Western Conference semifinals. Game 1 of the best-of-three series is Wednesday.

“I see this team being very confident right now and thinking they can win in spite of” the disparity in the teams’ success level, Coach Jennifer Gillom said.

Their last game underlined that. In their first four meetings with Seattle, the Sparks lost by an average of more than 10 points. But in their final meeting of the regular season Saturday, the Sparks lost in the last second, 76-75.

Gaining confidence hasn’t been easy. The Sparks were without Lisa Leslie for the first time in 13 seasons, the three-time MVP having retired last fall, and had a new coach, new players and a new system.

Then came June 13. Parker leaped for a rebound and walked off the court in agony, holding her shoulder.

“On my birthday I get a win,” said Gillom, who turned 46 that day. “But at the same time, I lose my best player.”

Then Lennox, often the scrappiest player on the court, underwent knee surgery. The Sparks were left with nine players, including three starters well into their 30s: Tina Thompson, Ticha Penicheiro and Milton-Jones.

After her team fell to 4-13, Gillom publicly pushed for free-agent center Courtney Paris. General Manager Penny Toler had a different plan.

“Like I told the team: ‘Look to your right, look to your left, there’s no one better to play on this team. This is what we’re going to roll with,’” Toler said.

Thompson took over, ignoring her injured calves and sore Achilles’ tendon to become the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer, surpassing Leslie’s 6,263 points.

“I see a newfound fire in her eyes,” Gillom said. “I think what’s helping Tina is that the team is playing better.”

Almost every player stepped up in the push to the playoffs. Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton, who is in her second season, had a career-high 16 points in her first career start. Second-year guard Kristi Toliver, acquired in May from the Chicago Sky, has been an effective outside shooter. Same for Marie Ferdinand-Harris and Noelle Quinn.

“In most cases, people mature through adversity,” Thompson said. “And we’ve had a lot of adverse situations.”

melissa.rohlin@latimes.com

Times staff writer Laura Myers contributed to this report.


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