Candace Parker almost had scored her first points of the 2018 WNBA season, but instead the ball clanked off the iron and got scooped up by the opposition. Parker fouled reaching for the ball.
Yet, as referees blew their whistles and paused Sunday’s game, Parker laughed, clapped and, yes, smiled on her way to a team huddle. Even though she missed that shot, Parker still had plenty to smile about.
The 11-year veteran wasn’t an overbearing presence in the Sparks’ 80-72 victory over the Phoenix Mercury at Staples Center. She had 10 points, three rebounds and two assists.
Parker, 32, was sidelined for the Sparks’ first three games because of a back injury after playing in China in the offseason. She returned for Sunday’s home opener, and even though she came off the bench, the 11,201 in attendance gave her plenty more to smile about when she made a layup with 2.6 second left in the first quarter for her first two points.
“I’m feeling good,” she said while adjusting an ice pack on a knee. “Rhythm-wise, and obviously condition-wise, it’s another story. But in terms of my back and my body, I feel good.”
She said her injury wasn’t something she tweaked at a particular moment and instead attributed it to time.
“I’m old,” she said. “It’s kind of one of those things.”
Parker said she has practiced with the team only once this season, so it’ll take time to get back to top form. Time, she said, and some cardio.
“We didn’t start the game today the way we wanted,” Agler said, “but when the going got tough today, I thought we made a good stand.”
That started with strong defense against the Mercury (2-2), who features Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi.
Griner found some success early. Soon after the Sparks scored their first points, the 6-foot-9 center muscled Nneka Ogwumike out of the way in the post for an easy layup. She did so again on a spin toward the basket. She also showed off her athleticism by spiking an Odyssey Sims shot attempt like a volleyball late in the third quarter. But aside from those few flashes, she was five of 10 from the field for 17 points — three below her season average — and grabbed four rebounds.
Taurasi was was four of nine from the field for 11 points, well below her average of 20.3.
“I think we’re getting better,” Agler said. “We’re not where we need to be yet, but they have some really good players, and they’re tough to defend.”
The defense was aided by the offensive performance of guard Chelsea Gray, who had 23 points and nine assists. Ogwumike, the team’s leading scorer, had 18 points. But the most definitive play came from Parker.
With the Sparks leading 76-71, Ogwumike broke away with Parker on a two on one. She dished it near the rim and Parker finished by laying it in with 2 minutes 16 seconds to play. After the play, Parker turned to Ogwumike, pointed and smiled again as the crowd serenated the team with its loudest ovation of the game. From there, the outcome was never in doubt.
“I think it speaks volumes,” Parker said, “that we were able to go out and compete and play against a great team with only one practice.”
Follow Ethan Bauer on Twitter @ebaueri