2013 Season In Review

Two years into the Sparks re-energized era led by head coach Carol Ross and its solid core of players, Los Angeles molded itself into a team of championship caliber talent knocking on the door of league dominance.

"I thought it was a step closer to what we really wanted," said guard/forward Alana Beard, who completed her eighth season. "I said last year was the year of... adjusting to each other. This year, we spent a lot of the time getting to know each other, learning each other even more and building that trust on and off the court."

Under Coach Ross, forward/center Candace Parker joined elite company as a two-time MVP award-winner, while forward Nneka Ogwumike and guard Kristi Toliver each improved upon her award-winning 2012 season to become an All-Star.

With greater team cohesiveness to compliment the individual improvement of its talented roster, the Sparks look ahead to 2014, a year with hefty goals and sights set on bringing a third WNBA Championship back to Los Angeles.

"As cliché as it sounds... third time is the charm," Beard added. "Hopefully, it is a charm for us. I hope that everyone understands that it is a process and we are making progress toward our ultimate goal."

First Half

Progress was evident from the opener, a 102-69 home win over the Seattle Storm in the highest-scoring game by a Sparks team since 2006. The 33-point margin of victory was also the largest in team history, though that number was twice topped later in the season, including an 84-48 rout of the San Antonio Silver Stars on June 15. Counting a 96-66 victory over the Minnesota Lynx, Los Angeles won four games by at least 30 points this season.

The first month of the Sparks season was largely uneventful, as it opened 5-4 and 0-4 away from STAPLES Center, including two straight losses by double digits in Minneapolis and Chicago to conclude June. A six-game win streak later, including its first two road wins, the Sparks sat at 11-4 halfway through July and were riding a 19-game home win streak dating back to 2012.

"We made sure that we bounced off the mat quick and made everybody else feel the pain after one loss," said forward Ebony Hoffman. "We were just trying to make sure that everybody felt like you didn't want to lose and we didn't want to lose on our court especially."

Though both streaks were snapped one game later, the Sparks still proved to be one of the WNBA's most dominant home powers, as it completed the season tied for the league's best mark at 15-2. Perhaps more notable, however, Los Angeles finished over .500 (9-8) on the road for the first time since 2006 and was undefeated away from home during the month of July.

Parker twice won Western Conference Player of the Week during July en route to the fourth Western Conference Player of the Month honor of her career. She averaged 19.8 points per game and nine rebounds per game as the Sparks finished the month winners of seven out of nine games and 12-6 overall--good for second place in the West.

As the first half wrapped up with the team an established force at home and on the road, it was time to recognize the individual performances that got them there. The 2013 Boost Mobile WNBA All-Star Game in Uncasville, Connecticut not only welcomed Parker, the Western Conference's leading vote-getter, but also first-timers Ogwumike and Toliver, who were voted in by coaches to represent Los Angeles at the All-Star game. Both Ogwumike and Toliver had been recognized in 2012 as the Rookie of the Year and the Most Improved Player of the Year, respectively, but their latest selections established them as bona fide stars.

None of the Sparks representatives disappointed, as they combined to score 42 of the West's 59 second-half points as it defeated the East, 102-98. While Ogwumike scored two key fourth-quarter baskets and Toliver poured in 21 points, it was Parker who scored a record 23 points and earned All-Star MVP honors.

Second Half

Entering the second half of the season, the Sparks encountered a five-game, 10-day road trip, playing three games without Parker, who was nursing an injured right wrist. Ever-improving center Jantel Lavender helped right the ship after Los Angeles dropped the opener at Tulsa. Over the next four games, Lavender averaged 15.8 points and eight rebounds as the Sparks won all four games as part of its second six-game run of the season.

In five games when she played at least 26 minutes this season, Lavender scored at a rate of 15.6 points and pulled down 7.4 rebounds per game.

"A lot of people can get a little bit defeated by how my playing time went," Lavender said, "but I just want to be a good teammate at the end of the day and make my teammates better in any way I could. That was my outlook and how I looked at practice everyday."

Among the teammates Lavender made better was point guard Lindsey Harding, who in her seventh season--and first with the Sparks--set a new career-high in averaging 5.2 assists per game. In an August 4 win at Washington, Harding dished out a career-best 14 assists, one shy of Ticha Penicheiro's team record set in 2010, and two short of Penicheiro's all-time WNBA mark.

"When you have so many weapons, it really is," said Harding of the ease of her job. "You have so many people who know what to do with the ball, especially offensively."

Toliver, who was allowed to play off the ball with the arrival of Harding, was named the Western Conference Player of the Week for games played from August 12 through August 18. Her 28 points on August 16 led Los Angeles to a 94-72 defeat of the defending champion Indiana Fever. Over the course of the season, Toliver notched 26 double-digit scoring games and led the Sparks in scoring on nine different occasions. The guard also led the team in minutes played (1,019) and three-point field goals made (49).

Ogwumike's nose for the ball was on display all season, but no more than during the Sparks August 25 contest versus the Tulsa Shock. Los Angeles fought back from a 19-point fourth quarter deficit to force double overtime and ultimately seal a win, 90-88. Ogwumike scored 19 of her 21 points during the fourth quarter and overtime periods. Her play not only energized the team, but left her with a celebration wound over her left eye during a post-basket team pile-on; a lasting image to define the game and season.

Over the team's final seven regular season games, Ogwumike averaged 17.1 points per game and 9.1 rebounds per game and saw no letdown from her impressive first season.

"Some games are better than others, but I try my best to stay as consistent as I can," said Ogwumike. "I think that Tulsa game definitely gave us a little bit of momentum going into the postseason as a team."

As Los Angeles prepared for the postseason, its star received recognition for her role in getting them there. Parker received her second career MVP award, finishing among the league leaders in field goals made (208, fifth), free throws (131, fifth), total rebounds (269, fifth), blocks (57, fourth) and points (556, fourth). She scored at least 20 points 14 times and tallied nine double-doubles during the regular season. Parker also pulled down a single-game career-high of 20 rebounds in a June 1 win at San Antonio and converted the game-winning lay-up in the Sparks comeback win over the Shock.

Playoffs

In its second consecutive playoff appearance and fifth in six years, the Sparks took on the Phoenix Mercury to decide what the regular season could not. With a split of the four-game season series, including one win on the other's home court, the Sparks and Mercury met in a semifinals series that proved unpredictable and unforgiving.

After dropping Game 1 at STAPLES Center despite 28 points from the newly-minted MVP Parker, the Sparks traveled to Phoenix with its collective back against the wall as it squared off with a Mercury team that had won six out of seven at US Airways Center. Stifling defense against the recently torrid-shooting Mercury and increased ball movement on the offensive end helped the Sparks build a 14-point halftime lead and it never looked back. Ogwumike (15 points, 11 rebounds) and Parker (31 points, 11 rebounds) each posted double-doubles. Coach Carol Ross said the team played at a "championship-caliber level."

"The game at Phoenix, there was a toughness, it was against a very good team," Ross added. "What I liked in that game was that we had such a defensive presence with (Diana) Taurasi and with their other players."

Game 3 at STAPLES Center was everything a do-or-die postseason contest should be, as the teams traded shots and defensive stops. The lead changed hands 14 times--including four times in the fourth quarter. Ultimately, Parker's driving lay-up with seven seconds remaining was answered by a baseline jumper by Mercury center Brittney Griner as Phoenix moved on, 78-77, to end the Sparks championship rally.

Moving Forward

While the pain of a second consecutive season-ending one-point loss will linger, the Sparks appreciate the relentlessness its team showed.

"I like our fight," said Parker. "I like despite all the challenges that we had, that we continued to kind of get back up. That is something that we have to do from this. We have to treat it kind of like that."

"We are talented; we have the pieces," Toliver added. "It is unfortunate that this year didn’t unfold the way that we wanted it to or the way that we felt that it should."

"We just have to look at ourselves and look in the mirror and see what we can all improve and get better individually and that will get us better as a team."

Offseason Plans

As it stands, nine Sparks players will embark on overseas journeys to represent Los Angeles across the globe.

Farhiya Abdi - Slovakia (Good Angels Košice)
Alana Beard - Korea
Marissa Coleman - Korea (KB Stars)
Jantel Lavender - Poland (Wisla Can-Pack Kraków)
A'dia Mathies - Slovakia (Good Angels Košice)
Jenna O'Hea - Australia (Dandenong Rangers)
Nneka Ogwumike - China (Guangdong Dolphins)
Candace Parker - Russia (UMMC Ekaterinburg)
Kristi Toliver - Russia (Dynamo Moscow)

Though the 2013 season is over, the team remains locked in and focused on making sure the third time is the charm in 2014. With a core of stars that has led a tightly-knit group to home dominance and a road swagger, the Sparks appear ready to take a final leap towards its ultimate goal--a WNBA Championship.

Stay connected to LASparks.com, as well as the official Facebook and Twitter pages of the Los Angeles Sparks for updates on how the team is being represented around the world and preparing for a banner 2014.

By Andrew Sinatra
LASparks.com
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