Sparks struggling in transition phase

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The Sparks are lost. They’re trying to find themselves but haven’t had much luck. They don’t seem to be anywhere they’re looking.

They could try checking the last place they were, but that wouldn’t help. They’ve changed since then. There’s a new coach, a new system; players have come and gone.

This identity crisis has left them with three straight losses to start the season, all coming on the road. Friday night’s game against the Washington Mystics is their first home game.

And according to star forward Candace Parker, urgency is starting to creep toward them.

“We know we’re probably going to have to win 18-20 games to make the playoffs this year because of how strong the league is,” Parker said.

The team’s struggles aren’t tied to Parker’s performance, though. She’s averaging 15.3 points and a league-leading 11 rebounds this season.

But, like her teammates, she’s adjusting to change, largely the retirement of future Hall of Fame center Lisa Leslie and Sparks first-year coach Jennifer Gillom’s new system.

“Anytime you lose a player of Lisa’s caliber, it’s going to be a big adjustment,” Sparks forward Tina Thompson said. “But I think for Candace it is a big adjustment because she’s used to facing up to the basket. Now, Coach is trying to get her to play inside more with her back to the basket, which is an extreme adjustment unless you’ve done it all the time.”

Gillom said Parker is “the tallest person we have on the team, so we try to utilize her size inside.”

Such a move seems risky, though, because Parker has sizeable agility, shooting and ball-handling advantages over virtually every other post player in the WNBA, which she utilized when receiving the ball away from the bucket.

But Gillom said Parker will do both: “We just want to make her go inside a little bit more than she normally does.”

Parker said she doesn’t care either way, though she does admit not having Leslie around isn’t easy.

“It’s tough not having Lisa here in practice and on the road,” Parker said. “I definitely miss her.”

Outside of Parker’s adjustment, Thompson said what Gillom wants compared with what former coach Michael Cooper wanted is “very different.”

For starters, she said, Cooper preferred a half-court offense that got the ball inside. Gillom, on the other hand, wants to score more in transition, which relies more on guard-play and helps explain the team’s off-season acquisition of veteran point guard Ticha Penicheiro.

On defense, Gillom said the team needs to be more aggressive — especially on the perimeter — because it doesn’t have Leslie’s intimidating presence in the middle.

These concepts have yet to gel. Thompson and Parker said the team falls into these moments where it plays as though Cooper is still coaching, which has hurt them.

“We knew there was going to be an adjustment period,” Parker said. “We’ve been together as an entire team for two weeks. This is still preseason for us. We would still be disappointed at 3-0 if we were playing the way we’re playing.”

Gillom said confusion is expected and that you can’t rush these things. “It takes time,” she said. “It’s just taking us a little longer than we expected.”

Gillom adds, speaking of the team’s short training camp that was followed by a three-game road trip, “It just so happens our schedule didn’t favor a new coach bringing in a new system.”

Their schedule also doesn’t grant them a considerable grace period for adjustment, since only 31 games remain. Not that the players are patient anyway.

“I’m impatient,” Thompson said. “I want to win. Hopefully that will be a fire for us as well.”

Thompson said she is happy that there doesn’t seem to be any issues with intensity or effort, and that it’s just becoming familiar.

“Teams have gotten lucky thus far that we’re kind of off-kilter,” she said.