The Los Angeles Sparks are back in the decisive game of the Western Conference finals. This time, they want to finish the job and keep Lisa Leslie's career alive in the process.
The Sparks look to return to the WNBA finals for the first time in six years Saturday night when they visit the Phoenix Mercury with the conference title on the line.
Los Angeles suffered a heartbreaking end last season, falling in three games to San Antonio in the West finals. It was a difficult finish to a season in which Candace Parker debuted and won MVP honors as a rookie.
The focus surrounding the Sparks this year was about Leslie, the iconic center considered one of the greatest players in WNBA history. She's won four Olympic gold medals, three league MVPs and two WNBA titles and Los Angeles made clear that its 2009 mission was to try to send Leslie out with another championship.
This looked like it could be Leslie's final series after Phoenix won 103-94 on the road Wednesday. The Sparks, though, evened the series Friday thanks to a big effort from their star center as they built a 20-point lead in the first half in an 87-76 victory.
The 37-year-old Leslie scored 16 of her 20 points in the first half and made 9 of 15 shots for the game. She had six points and Parker added seven in a game-opening 15-4 run.
"We're very desperate, yes," Leslie said. "I think when your back's to the wall and now they're in that position and they'll have to sleep the way we slept.''
Parker finished with 24 points and 18 boards as Los Angeles posted a 43-28 rebounding edge. She had 15 points by halftime and notched her second straight double-double after getting 28 and 10 on Wednesday.
Diana Taurasi scored 25 points to lead Phoenix on Friday after finishing with 28 in the series opener. The Mercury reached the century mark in their three wins in the playoffs before managing their lowest point total since July 30 in Game 2.
"They came out like the team that had to win the game and they did that throughout the 40 minutes," Taurasi said. "We played like the team that was up 1-0 and for whatever reason it's 1-1 and Game 3 at home so we can't really ask for anything more."
Taurasi's backcourt partner and fellow all-WNBA first team member Cappie Pondexter missed 11 of 16 shots Friday and scored 19 points. Pondexter was fourth in the league in scoring with 19.1 points per game in the regular season, but is averaging 16.8 in the playoffs.
One concern for the Sparks is the heavy minutes they logged Friday. Six of the seven players that saw action for Los Angeles played at least 25 minutes and Parker, DeLisha Milton-Jones and Tina Thompson each logged more than anybody for the Mercury, who used nine players.
Phoenix is seeking its second title in three years and will face elimination for the third time after finishing with a league-high 23 regular-season victories. The Mercury won the final two games of their semifinal series against San Antonio.