Sparks look to end skid against Mystics

The Associated Press

The Los Angeles Sparks are not used to this roller-coaster ride. They are usually perched comfortably atop the WNBA standings.

But this season is proving to be a little more challenging for Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and company.

The Sparks are 12-7 and just percentage points behind the Washington Mystics (11-6), who will face the Sparks on Saturday in Los Angeles. The two are virtually tied for the third-best record in the league.

Phoenix and Seattle have the best records in the WNBA at 14-5.

But Los Angeles has lost two in a row, the first by one point to Connecticut and then a road defeat to defending champion Minnesota on Thursday.

In that game, Minnesota's Rebekkah Brunson became the WNBA career rebounds leader.

The Mystics and Sparks met June 15. Los Angeles was on cruise control as the Sparks beat the Mystics 97-86 on Washington's home court. And as usual, the teams pointed to defense as being the key to the victory.

"I thought we played great defense the first half," Parker said after the win. "Going in the second half, we knew they were going to make adjustments. I just think credit to them, they made adjustments and we did not do a good job of reacting."

Mystics coach Mike Thibault said, "We were a step behind defensively the whole first half and that carried over to our offense. "They kind of had their way with us. It wasn't good tonight. L.A. is really good."

But since that loss, the Mystics and Elena Delle Donne have been pretty good. They're 5-1 with their only loss being a 10-point defeat to Phoenix. On Thursday, Washington walloped New York by 19 points.

Four Mystics scored in double figures, led by forward Delle Donne's 21 points. She as 8 of 19 from the field and 3 of 8 from 3-point range. Washington is now 10-3 this season with Delle Donne in the lineup.

Mystics guard Natasha Cloud toyed with a triple-double and compiled 10 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds.

Even though the offense was clicking, Thibault continued the line about defense being the key.

"The biggest thing is when you play defense, you give yourself a chance to win," Thibault said. "I thought we were just slightly off in the first half defensively. The second half defensively was excellent. That is an A rating defense in the second half."

While the Mystics' defense is earning accolades from Thibault, the Sparks still rank No. 1 in fewest points allowed at 76.5 per game. Washington is allowing 81 per game. The two teams are just about dead even in defensive field-goal percentage. Los Angeles allows opponents to shoot 45.1 percent and Washington's opponents shoot 45.0 percent.

Sparks guard and defensive guru Alana Beard said that understanding the opponent's strengths and defending against what they do well is the key to beating the Mystics.

"At least 60 percent of Kristi Tolliver's shots are 3s and 25 percent of Delle Donne's are 3s," Beard said. "You want to make them do something else. KT, when she is hitting her 3s, it is getting everyone else going."

The Sparks focus on keeping the ball out of her hands while taking up her space around the 3-point line to force her to pass.

The Sparks have scuffled lately, going 3-5 in their last eight games. Ogwumike missed three games but returned in a win over Las Vegas on Sunday. She has returned to playing like an All-Star, scoring 35 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in the two losses after the victory over the Aces.

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