Led by a much-improved Candace Parker, the Sparks avoided elimination in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals, defeating the Minnesota Lynx, 81-71, Sunday at the Pyramid in Long Beach.
Parker — who had 16 points on five-for-16 shooting in Game 1 — was a different player Sunday, with 25 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and three steals. She put up 18 of those points in the first half.
“I think Candace is extremely hungry,” Sparks Coach Brian Agler said. “It’s not just the scoring, it’s the rebounding, how active she is defensively, getting deflections, making the random defensive plays that you have to make to push your team further into the playoffs. She’s elevating her play, she’s elevating her teammate’s play.”
Parker got some help from guard Ana Dabovic, who contributed 19 points and seven assists in 24 minutes off the bench.
“Every time I go in the game, I have fun, because I play with great flair, especially with Candace,” Dabovic said.
Dabovic’s output was especially helpful because Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, one of the team’s most consistent players, left the game in the third quarter because of a strained neck. Agler said he was unsure of Ogwumike’s availability for the deciding Game 3 back in Minnesota, and praised Dabovic for stepping up.
“She’s a gamer,” Agler said. “I guess the best thing I can say about Ana is she’s fearless, and she has a tremendous demeanor. If she makes a mistake or misses a shot, she doesn’t get down, she just keeps playing. She brings energy to the floor, she’s enthusiastic, she’s one of the best players in the world.”
The Sparks had their highest-scoring first half of the season, pouring in 53 points while limiting the Lynx to 35.
“There’s no question that our efficiency at the offensive end is very important,” Agler said. “That was something we wanted to focus on, was making sure when we get the ball, we got shots on goal, and not throw the ball away, because they’re very good at turning you over and shooting layups.”
The second half, however, didn’t go quite as smoothly. The Lynx jumped out to a 15-2 run, with the Sparks scoring four points in the first six minutes of the third quarter.
“The third quarter can’t happen again,” Parker said. “We’re not going to get an 18-point cushion on this team anymore. We’re looking at it because we won in a positive light, but just the same, a play here or a play there changes the game. So we really need to focus on that third quarter, because that’s been our Achilles’ heel the last two games.”
The Lynx cut the deficit to four points in the fourth quarter after a three-point play by Rebekkah Brunson. But the Sparks recovered with back-to-back triples, first by Parker, then by Dabovic on a bank shot.
“I thought our execution was horrendous,” Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve said. “It needed to be great. We did all that work” to cut the deficit to two possessions.
After putting up a playoff career-high 33 points in Game 1, Maya Moore was again dominant for the Lynx, scoring 27 points on nine-for-17 shooting (five for eight from three-point range) to go with six rebounds and four steals. She didn’t get much help though — Seimone Augustus had 14 points while converting just five of 15 shots, and no one else on the Lynx has more than 10 points.
“Some of our shots didn’t go in today,” Moore said. “Seimone got great looks, I’ll give her those looks every day of the week … you can’t really overthink misses and makes as long as you’re getting good shots.”
The Sparks were playing in the Pyramid instead of the Staples Center because next-door L.A. Live was playing host to the Emmy Awards. But Parker made it clear that a change of venue was the least of her concerns after an up-and-down season.
“That’s what’s so great about our team — we’ve been through everything this year,” Parker said. “Injuries, people coming in and out. At the beginning of the season, with our record out of the playoffs, we had to fight the whole year, and this is something that we didn’t really even talk about. It was kind of like, that’s where we’re playing, so we have to take care of business.”