You’ll have to forgive the Sparks if they don’t sense things are beginning to feel very familiar. And familiar, in this case, is a WNBA title.
The Sparks ran their way to an 86-72 victory over the Phoenix Mercury on Thursday night at the Pyramid in Long Beach, taking a commanding 2-0 lead in their best-of-five semifinal series.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Lynx have taken the same lead in the other semifinal, leaving both teams one victory away from a rematch of last year’s championship series that was won by the Sparks in five games.
“Everyone remembers us winning the world championship last year, but it was a struggle,” said Sparks center Candace Parker. “We stumbled into the play-offs.”
Parker helped lead the way Thursday, scoring 19 of her game-high 24 points in the first half. To that she added a game-high 13 rebounds and six assists. And for much of the game she also defended Phoenix star Brittney Griner.
Not that, once again, she did not have plenty of help. Point guard Odyssey Sims added 21 points and forward Nneka Ogwumike had 18 points and nine rebounds.
The Sparks led almost the entire game.
They were up 43-35 at the half and then, paced by a solid defense, pushed their lead to 15 points late in the third quarter.
Then came a stumble, the Mercury putting together a last-hurrah 13-2 run to close to within four points before the Sparks regained their focus, clamped down the defense and ran their way to a fairly easy victory.
The series moves to Phoenix on Sunday, a victory giving the Sparks a sweep and possible rematch with the Lynx. Overall, the Sparks have won their last nine games.
The Sparks are playing their best basketball at exactly the right moment.
“I think tonight we did resemble a little bit more of the way we finished the regular season,” Sparks coach Brian Agler said. “Offensively we were more aggressive, moved the ball better.
“I do think we keep getting better. I envision that. And we’re going to need to keep improving.”
Unlike in the opener Tuesday, the Sparks were able to utilize their fastbreak.
And despite the presence of the 6-foot-9 Griner, they dominated inside. They outscored the Mercury 50-36 on points in the paint and 20-6 on second-chance points.
“They’re just too fast,” Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said. “Obviously their guard play in the second half really hurt us. Taking care of the ball is obviously something we can control. I thought we were a little impatient at times and we allowed them to get out and run on us.”
Griner finished with 14 points but never really got her game going. Diana Taurasi overcame a sluggish opener to lead the Mercury with 21 points.
“Brittney is a phenomenal player,” Parker said. “For her and Diana, you just try to make them uncomfortable. Sometimes they’re going to hit an uncomfortable shot and we can live with that.”