Candace Parker returns to Chicago

Following Saturday’s stumble in Indiana, the schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Chicago Sky, who host one of the West’s bests – Los Angeles – in a Sunday matinee. The Sky are in the midst of a brutal stretch of eight games against playoff-caliber opponents as they make their playoff push.

This marks the first time Chicago and L.A. meet this year, with a second matchup slated for less than two weeks away on Sept. 13 at Los Angeles. Beginning with an impressive victory over league-leader Minnesota on July 5, the Sparks ignited for a nine-game winning streak that was only recently ended by backs-to-the-wall Tulsa on Thursday. Over that 10-game stretch, L.A.’s Kristi Toliver, who was drafted by Chicago in 2009, has played as well as anyone in the league, averaging 22.8 points, five assists, and 3.2 rebounds per game. Toliver’s jump to the next level has given L.A. a veritable “Big 3” with Olympian Candace Parker (17.5 points, 9.8 rebounds) and this year’s No. 1 overall pick, Nneka Ogwumike (13.6 points, 7.6 rebounds).

One key to the Sparks’ success is their consistency in the lineup. The above-named three, along with Alana Beard and DeLisha Milton-Jones, have started every game of the season with rare exception. The resulting chemistry has yielded such lofty numbers as 83.3 points per game (second in the WNBA behind the Lynx), 44.5 percent shooting from the field (third in the league), and a smothering defense that has held opponents to a league-worst 32 percent from the perimeter.

As one of the taller teams in the league, the Sparks like to play inside, which bodes well for the equally height-gifted Chicago. While Sky center Carolyn Swords has filled in admirably as a starter, scoring a career-high 14 against Connecticut last Sunday, the Sky hope to have their own Olympian, Sylvia Fowles, back in the starting lineup.

Sky guard Epiphanny Prince, who at one point led the league in scoring, has eased her way back to the lineup with back-to-back 30-plus minutes in her last two games. It’s only a matter of time until she returns to her pre-injury production of nearly 23 points per game. Meanwhile, point guard Courtney Vandersloot has flourished in her new role off the bench with averages of 15.3 points and seven assists in her last three games.

With an upcoming game against New York next Friday – one with huge implications as a potential playoffs tie-breaker – Chicago sits ½ game out of fourth place in the Eastern Conference with third-place Atlanta also within striking distance. Tune in to Comcast CN100 for all the action at 5 p.m. CT or watch the game on WNBA LiveAccess via www.chicagosky.net.