LOS ANGELES(AP) Cappie Pondexter looked around and didn't see Candace Parker warming up for the Los Angeles Sparks. That's when she knew something was up.
"It was surprising to me,'' Pondexter said. "It's dangerous at the same time, because when a team doesn't have its star player, they rally together. It looked like that in the first quarter for sure.''
But in the end first-place Phoenix held off the Sparks 98-90 Thursday night, ending Los Angeles' six-game winning streak.
Pondexter had 26 points and six assists, Diana Taurasi added 20 points, Penny Taylor 17 points, Temeka Johnson had 14 points and six assists against her former team, and DeWanna Bonner had 13 points and nine rebounds.
The Mercury already clinched the franchise's fifth playoff berth and second in the last three years. Their 19 wins trail only Eastern Conference-leading Indiana, which has 20.
Phoenix owns a two-game lead in the Western Conference over Seattle, with the Sparks another five games back in third.
"That's the team we're going to have to beat to win the championship,'' said Lisa Leslie, who led the Sparks with 23 points.
Los Angeles has yet to beat the Mercury in three games, with one remaining.
"We are still in the playoff hunt, still right there,'' coach Michael Cooper said. "We are 14-14. Once playoffs come around I don't care what anyone says, the championship is going to run through Los Angeles.''
Betty Lennox added 18 and Tina Thompson had 17 points and seven assists for the Sparks, who were without starters Parker and Kristi Harrower. Noelle Quinn had 12 points and a season-high eight assists.
Parker missed the game because of undisclosed personal reasons, while Harrower missed the first of three games to be in Australia for her grandmother's funeral.
Team co-owner Kathy Goodman said Parker would return to practice on Friday and that she would "definitely'' play Sunday against Connecticut. Goodman said Parker asked the team not to disclose any details about her absence, but she said the Olympian wasn't injured.
"We missed her on the boards and how she contributes offensively,'' DeLisha Milton-Jones said.
Phoenix used a 16-6 run, including five by Pondexter and four by Taurasi, to take its largest lead, 89-79. But the Sparks scored nine consecutive points to trail 89-88 with 2:45 left. Pondexter lost the ball and Marie Ferdinand-Harris snagged it and scored on a driving layup before Leslie hit two free throws to cap the spurt.
"We were focused because we had just lost against Washington at home, and we haven't had a back-to-back loss all year,'' Pondexter said. "We were definitely trying to avoid that. Early, it looked like we were headed the wrong way but our energy and efforts really picked up.''
The Mercury outscored the Sparks 9-2 to end the game. Lennox missed a 3-pointer and was called for traveling before Quinn missed a 3-pointer and Thompson committed a foul in the backcourt as the Sparks unraveled over the final minute.
"We gave up a game that was very much winnable,'' Milton-Jones said.
Phoenix rallied from six points down to take a 74-68 lead after three quarters. The Mercury was 10 of 12 from the line, with Pondexter making all four of her foul shots. Leslie's basket at 6:58 marked the Sparks' last lead of the game.
The Mercury staged another comeback from a 15-point deficit to tie the game in the second. They outscored the Sparks 18-5, including 13 straight points to open the quarter, to get within two. They tied the game at 40 on a free throw by Bonner.
Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton scored four in a row and Lennox hit a 3-pointer that sent Los Angeles into halftime leading 47-42 despite shooting 25 percent.
"We had way too many turnovers and missed shots,'' Leslie said.
The Sparks hardly looked like a team missing two starters in the opening quarter when they shot 65 percent from the floor and led 34-19, with their points being a season high in a quarter. Leslie was perfect, hitting all seven of her field goals and making her only free throw.