And not in an off-the-bench, injury-limited role like a week ago. Instead, the Sparks’ Candace Parker is back in full force, and she put the defending WNBA champions on notice Sunday.
Behind 19 points from the two-time most valuable player, the Sparks defeated the Minnesota Lynx, their opponent in the last two WNBA Finals, for the second time this season, 77-69. Parker made her first start of the season and earned the day’s loudest ovation from the 13,500 fans at Staples Center when her name was announced.
She gave the crowd plenty more to scream about when she scored 17 points in the first half, nearly doubling the 10 total points she scored in her season debut against Phoenix on May 27.
Some of her success was luck — she banked in a long jumper with a minute left in the second quarter. Some was grit — moments later, she palmed a rebound under the basket between two Lynx defenders, made a layup, added a free throw and flexed for the crowd.
A week off between games allowed her to practice with the team consistently for the first time this season.
“I felt like I wasn’t limited in any movement,” said Parker, who missed the first three games with a back injury. “I don’t waste days like that.”
Parker led all players in scoring and rebounds, with 10, but said she’s still not herself. She’s been doing extra cardio and getting extra practice reps, she said, so that her lungs allow her to play to her potential.
“It’ll take maybe a little bit of time, but I can tell there was a big improvement from last Sunday to this Sunday,” coach Brian Agler said. “I thought she did a lot of good things.”
Agler also was impressed with forward Alana Beard, who was assigned to guard perennial All-Star Maya Moore for most of the game. Beard held Moore without a basket in the first quarter and limited her to three points in the fourth. Moore finished with 18 points.
“She’s as good a defender as I’ve been around,” Agler said. “She just makes it difficult on whoever she’s guarding.”
Beard’s defense was epitomized early in the second quarter when she stole the ball from Moore and landed on her back. With her head peeking off the floor, she passed to guard Chelsea Gray, who darted down the court alongside Odyssey Sims for a two-on-one opportunity. Gray passed to Sims near the basket, and Sims finished with a layup while drawing a foul.
Beard was modest about her impact on that play and her defense in general.
“All I see is the basketball,” she said of the steal. “It’s a loose ball. It’s a 50-50 chance of getting it. I want to make sure we get it.”
Gray was one of four double-digit scorers for the Sparks (4-1) a week after she led the team with 23 against Phoenix, and she solidified the victory against the Lynx with a late three. Minnesota (2-5) had scored five in a row to close within seven with less than five minutes to play when Gray hit her high-arcing shot.
Sims (12) and forward Nneka Ogwumike (12) completed the list of double-digit scorers, although early on, it didn’t look like Ogwumike would make it. The Sparks’ leading scorer was held to two points in the first half, but after earning a technical foul early in the third quarter, she picked up her game.
“My teammates, of course, loved it because it’s uncharacteristic of me,” Ogwumike said of the technical. “At that point in time, I just felt fired up.”