The Sparks’ last season was Lisa Leslie’s last season — and three games into their new venture without the now-retired superstar, the team looked hapless and helpless.
But Friday night, with the future Hall of Fame center on the sideline as a television analyst, the Sparks rode Candace Parker, the player expected to fill Leslie’s shoes, to their first win of 2010, an 81-75 victory over the Washington Mystics at Staples Center.
Parker notched a season-high 30 points and 10 rebounds for her fourth straight double-double, which snapped the Sparks’ three-game losing streak, gave them a home-opening win and gave Jennifer Gillom her first win as the Sparks’ coach.
“It feels great, it really does,” said Gillom, who was previously the head coach of the Minnesota Lynx before being hired to replace Michael Cooper.
The team had struggled through its first three games, no doubt adjusting to the loss of Leslie and to Gillom’s new system, which differed offensively and defensively from what Cooper had them do.
But systems and style didn’t seem to matter Friday. Parker, the 2008 WNBA MVP and Rookie of the Year, bulled through the Mystics to carry her team to the win.
“I’m still adjusting to the system,” said Parker, who exceeded 1,000 career points in the win. “We all are. But it’s good to adjust to the system while winning.”
Their win almost wasn’t. The Sparks saw a double-digit lead shrink to four points several times in the second half, the final time when the Mystics’ Monique Currie scored with 7.5 seconds left to make it 79-75, Sparks. But Parker nailed two free throws with 6.5 seconds left to seal the win.
“Candace was huge,” Gillom said. “I knew she would have a great night because she’s had three great practices in a row. She had been staying after practice, coming in before practice, really working on her game, really wanting to prove herself. I knew she would have a good game tonight.”
Parker scored seven straight points during an 11-2 Sparks run in the second quarter that put the team up 41-27 with 1 minute 8 seconds left before halftime. In the second half, as the Mystics charged back, the Sparks went to Parker late.
“She played great,” said Sparks forward Tina Thompson, who added 15 points. “Every time I looked up, I saw Candace somewhere doing something.”