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Sparks head into WNBA playoffs with champion's mentality and winning chemistry on and off court

Sparks head into WNBA playoffs with champion's mentality and winning chemistry on and off court
Candace Parker and the defending champion Sparks will be the second seed in the WNBA playoffs. (Associated Press File Photo)

Candace Parker called across the Sparks locker room, where her teammates casually gathered after finishing another strong regular season.

"Nneka!" she said. "You told her about my pig?"

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Nneka Ogwumike smiled sheepishly. Just a few minutes before she indeed had revealed the Sparks captain is "living with a boar." To Parker she offered this defense: "I told her that he's awesome!"

"He's so awesome," Parker said, smiling.

Parker's pig is named Boo. He is two years old. She goes on walks with him and her two dogs and if he ever gets loose, the whole neighborhood knows just where to bring him.

Ogwumike never pets Boo, but some of their teammates do. They've gotten to know him as Parker's home has become a de-facto gathering spot for the defending WNBA champions.

On Sunday the Sparks beat the Connecticut Sun 81-70 to finish their regular season 26-8, the second-best record in the WNBA. Afterward, they did what they often do. They all gathered together at Parker's home for some Labor Day festivities, to relax with her daughter Lailaa, her dogs and Boo. As they prepare to try to repeat as champions, they'll do so with several advantages over other teams in the playoffs.

They've done it before. They have an experienced roster. They're entering the playoffs on a seven-game winning streak. With a bye until the league's semifinals, they now have more than a week to allow their bodies to recuperate.

And as an added bonus, they like each other.

"It's fun to be a part of a team where you don't feel like you have to plan anything to get everybody together," Parker said. "Nothing has been mandatory this year. We've all hung out. I think it's important for team camaraderie, but I also feel like it's lucky to want to be around your teammates."

Coming off their first championship season since back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002, the Sparks have spent the season conscious of their desire to repeat, unafraid of talking about it and understanding one basic truth about winning a championship.

It isn't easy.

"Last year was our blueprint," said Alana Beard, an 11-year veteran who won her first championship last season. "Before last year I always wondered, 'How? What's the mindset needed?' I remember going through that process and thinking, 'Are we prepared? Are we as focused as we need to be?' And it turned out we were."

The Sparks beat the Minnesota Lynx, a team that had baffled them in the past and finished one game better than them this season, in last year's WNBA Finals, three games to two.

"It was physical, it was intense," center Jantel Lavender said. "The fans there, when we won a championship, it was a sold-out arena. It was almost unbelievable that we would win in that environment."

Lavender barely even remembers the moment; she was too delirious with joy.

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Since then, the team changed. Talented point guard Kristi Toliver departed in free agency, and the Sparks brought in guard Odyssey Sims, with Chelsea Gray also acting as a point guard. Seven players remain from last year's championship team. And that experience gave Sparks coach Brian Agler confidence he could talk big-picture to his team.

"It's, like, obvious to talk about because of what we experienced last year, and the position we're in this year," said Ogwumike, the WNBA MVP in 2016. "But I think we focused more on us and the team. We have a lot of great assets and a lot of experience on and off the court. The organization itself, we know what it takes. I think we're trying to assume that mentality."

Agler believes their respect for each other is more important than simply liking each other.

"Our team seems to get along but I don't know if their top best three friends are on our team," Agler said. "They've got other lives too. But we do have a great amount of mutual respect, and I think that's the most important quality."

Ogwumike believes their closeness off the court does help on it.

"Just seeing how we operate on the court and in practice," she said. "Keeping each other up. Keeping each other encouraged. Then sometimes you have disagreements. It's not all lollipops and rainbows. I consider that an important part of being a family. Working through those times."

That team unity will be tested in the coming weeks, when the schedule intensifies and so do the stakes, as the Sparks try to repeat as champions again.

Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli

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