Maturity, experience at the root of Sparks’ newfound success

Five of the Los Angeles Sparks have been playing together since 2012. Candace Parker, left, was drafted in 2008; Kristi Toliver was acquired in 2010; Jantel Lavender was drafted in 2011; Nneka Ogwumike was drafted in 2012; and Alana Beard was acquired in 2012. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Sparks.
Five of the Los Angeles Sparks have been playing together since 2012. Candace Parker, left, was drafted in 2008; Kristi Toliver was acquired in 2010; Jantel Lavender was drafted in 2011; Nneka Ogwumike was drafted in 2012; and Alana Beard was acquired in 2012. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Sparks.

It was July, 2014 and the Los Angeles Sparks were hosting the Phoenix Mercury, who were on a tear that season. Roaring through their schedule, the eventual league champions used potent offense and brilliant synchronization to dominate opponents.

A physical team, the Mercury were also employing that aspect of their game to attack the Sparks in the match up, and it was working well. One game picture, taken by the late Los Angeles photographer Eric Wade, showed Sparks forward Candace Parker after being pushed to the floor – a look of disbelief on her face. Phoenix went on to win by 20 points.

Fast forward to this past Friday night, and the script was flipped. Again, the Mercury were visiting Staples Center, but this time the visitors had come to try and hand the hosts their first loss of the season. That plan didn’t pan out.

Parker tenaciously guarded Phoenix center Brittney Griner, helping to force her into four turnovers and limiting her to eight points on the night. Los Angeles forward Nneka Ogwumike, on one play, raced forward to block a DeWanna Bonner shot, then calmly walked away. It was a demeanor that all of the Sparks players had on display.

Players seemed like a bee hive on every play, moving, passing, cutting – and scoring. Yet there were few emotional displays from the Sparks; it was all business.

That demeanor, their game-by-game approach to the season and their refusal to internalize expectations have, ironically, spelled success so far for a team that has fallen short of where many thought they would be for the last several years. The five-core athlete group that has played together since 2012 seems not only to have learned each other, but how to approach the game.

That will come in handy Tuesday, as 11-0 Los Angeles faces their biggest match up of the year in the 12-0 Lynx.

The Sparks won back-to-back WNBA Championships in 2001 and 2002, and have been trying to get hold of the trophy again ever since.

Hope sprung eternal in 2008, when the franchise drafted Parker with their first pick. She was both MVP and rookie of the year that season, but the Sparks fell short in the playoffs. They repeated that performance the following year, which was All-Star center Lisa Leslie’s last before retirement. Parker was injured for a great portion of both the 2010 and 2011 seasons.

Perhaps the most memorable playoff loss since falling in the 2003 Championship game came in 2012, when the Sparks lost to the Minnesota Lynx in the Western Conference Finals on a last-second missed shot. The clank of the ball on the rim could be heard across the arena, and the buzzer sent a sobbing Parker into her mother’s arms.

Los Angeles has had first-round playoff exits each year since then, with plenty of head-scratching losses leading up to those endings. The 2014 season was especially perplexing, with the Sparks going hot and cold, and losing to several teams with worse records.

This year Los Angeles has been all action and no talk. There have been no promises of championships, as there were in years past. There hasn’t even been talk of playoffs, except to say that getting there is the goal. Both coach Brian Agler and Sparks players have continuously repeated that they are taking this year’s schedule one game at a time.

“The only thing we talked about in regard to this opponent is what we needed to do to play well,” Agler said after last week’s win over the Mercury. “They’re a challenge to defend……so we spent a lot of time focusing on that.”

The Sparks went into Friday’s game 10-0 and poised to tie the league record for most consecutive wins to begin a season. Phoenix was also coming in on a two-game winning streak. But Los Angeles guard Kristi Toliver said her team’s focus was on the game itself.

“We didn’t feel any pressure with regard to the record, because it’s all about the next game,” she said. “I was more excited that we were playing Phoenix, which is a high-caliber team. I was excited to play (Taurasi), because that always excites me.”

With every win this season, the buzz around the Sparks has grown louder. But Agler said he has tuned it out.

“I get asked a lot about records, but we don’t focus on records. We just focus on the day and what we have to do to prepare, what do we have to do to get better, and how do we prepare for the next opponent,” he said.

Five key Sparks players have been together now since the 2012 season. Toliver was acquired in 2010, and forward Jantel Lavender was drafted in 2011. Ogwumike was drafted in 2012, which was the same year guard Alana Beard was acquired. All have grown together, along with Parker, and they know each other well.

“It feels good to be a part of this team, aside from being 11-0,” Toliver said. “I think this is a special team, and we’re capable of having a special season. So far we are. It’s great to make history in the process, but just to be part of this team is more special.”

Parker, a tenacious competitor who came to Los Angeles after winning two NCAA titles at Tennessee, took Sparks playoff losses extremely hard in her early years. But the last two seasons, she has grown more philosophical. That includes preparing for the match up with the Lynx.

“You just go out there and play – you don’t put any unneccessary pressure on yourself,” Parker said. “That’s been working pretty well to this point.”

“Obviously everyone’s talking about the (Lynx) game, but at the end of the day it’s a game. And it’s a game that’s either going to get us closer to what we want to do, or it’s going to teach us something. We’re going to go out there and play hard, and I’ve learned to live with the results. You do the best you can, and at the end of the day, no regrets.”

Toliver said the Sparks will continue to run and push the ball.

“We want to play with pace, we know that’s a key to our success. I think we’re more comfortable playing with that high pace,” Toliver said. “The more we practice that way, the more comfortable we get with each other.”

Parker said the key is cohesion.

“We knew we were going to get (the Mercury’s) best shot, that they wanted to be the one to give us our first loss,” Parker said. “It’s going to be the same with Minnesota. We just have to continue to play together.”

The Lynx-Sparks game tips off at 12:30 p.m. Pacific Tuesday, on NBA TV.