Los Angeles -The Los Angeles Sparks ran past the Minnesota Lynx Thursday to win the regular-season series between the two teams and secure an eventual playoff tiebreaker.
Candace Parker led the Sparks with 23 points and 10 rebounds, Chelsea Gray added 18 points and nine assists, and Nneka Ogwumike scored 15 points in her return to the court after a three-game absence due to illness.
The game also marked the return of staring guard Alana Beard, who missed three games with an injury, and it snapped a five-game home losing streak for Los Angeles going into last week’s All-Star break.
Parker said defense was the key for the Sparks, who held the defending champions to a season-low 57 points.
“I think, defensively we were on point,” Parker said. “ We were helping each other, we didn’t give them anything easy. Even when they scored, it was worked for. I think, for us, that’s what we need to do and want to do. We wanted to finish it with a rebound and limit them on the boards as well.”
Los Angeles had a 5-4 lead early in the first quarter, but Parker was fouled on a layup and made the free throw, igniting an 8-0 run. A three-pointer from Gray with six seconds left in the period gave the hosts a 20-8 lead the break.
Minnesota made runs in both the second and third periods, but each time the Sparks answered to pad their lead back to double digits. The Lynx were held scoreless for long stretches of the fourth quarter, shot only 30 percent in the frame and were outscored 20-11.
“They played great,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “They had lost five in a row, and they had a sense of urgency about them.”
Ogwumike, whose flu-like symptoms also kept her out of All-Star action, said she brought her excitement at returning to the court.
“I missed a bit, but I wanted to come back with as much intensity and aggressiveness as I could,” she said. “It was great to have both Alana and me back out there. I practiced a couple of days, felt great. I was just happy that we were able to sustain the energy that we started with.”
Minnesota forward Rebekkah Brunson said her team’s opponents came into the game determined.
“We had issues on both ends with executing our game plan,” Brunson said. “I can’t say exactly what it was, but we didn’t come out with the same amount of energy that they had. They came out ready to play, and we didn’t.”
Despite a hot 9-2 start to the season, the finale with the Lynx was perhaps the most complete game of the season for Los Angeles, who took sole possession of third place in league standings with the win.
Minnesota, like most other teams in the WNBA, has also had an up-and-down season, beginning 3-6 and winning their last three before the break. For most of the year, the Seattle Storm have retained the top spot in the standings, and teams throughout eighth place have been separated by less than a game.
Going into Thursday’s match up, the Lynx had a half-game lead over the Sparks, which turned up the heat even more on a classically-heated rivalry.
I think everyone knows that there’s a sense of urgency that every game is sort of a playoff game,” Los Angeles coach Brian Agler said. “Every time someone wins or loses, the whole standings adjust.”
Sylvia Fowles was the lone Minnesota player in double figures, with 14 points.
The Sparks took the season series, 3-1, and will have a seeding advantage if the two teams meet again in the playoffs, which start at the end of the month.
The rivalry for the two teams has been much more closely-matched the last two years, with a five-point total scoring differential in games played against each other coming into the season. But thanks to a strong rookie class and a high level of play league-wide, the Storm, Sun, Mystics and other teams have challenged their dominance.
Reeve, for one, is not a fan of the parity.
“I like it when it was Minnesota and LA,” she said. “The parity? I don’t like anything about it. But it’s great for the fans. I liked it better when Minnesota and LA were the top two.”
The Lynx play Seattle Friday in the second of a back-to-back road game stand, before heading home to play the Las Vegas Aces Sunday. The Sparks host the Phoenix Mercury the same day.
Madison Rubino contributed to this report.