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Defending Champion Sparks Still ‘Work in Progress’ After Difficult Road Trip

NEW YORK – At this time a year ago, the Los Angeles Sparks still boasted an unblemished record, having dominated most of their opponents in the first two weeks of the season. The Sparks didn’t lose a game until June 21, starting with 11 straight victories. They didn’t lose for a second time until late July.

Early on this season, the defending champions are finding out just how difficult it can be to repeat.

L.A. just completed a three-game road trip, one that started with a pair of heartbreaking losses before the Sparks bounced back on Tuesday at New York. They fell by three points at Indiana and by just two at Atlanta, and the Liberty gave them everything they could handle for three quarters.

The Sparks have done some ‘soul searching’ about their defensive play, according to Nneka Ogwumike. Even though they pulled away for a 90-75 win on Tuesday – and now having a winning record at 3-2 – L.A. knows there is plenty of room for improvement.

“I think we’re a work in progress,” said Candace Parker, who finished with 20 points and 11 boards against the Liberty. “It’s a new season. The recipe that worked last year isn’t going to work this year. I think we figured that out during the two losses. We’ve got to be better defensively.

“We’re not going to win a championship today, but you have to do the things today that will prepare you to be in position to do so. Last year we took it game by game, possession by possession. This year it seems like we’re trying to hit a home run every game, and that’s not what we need to do. That’s why it’s so hard to repeat.”

It was Tina Charles that gave L.A. its biggest problems on the defensive end Tuesday. Charles scored the Liberty’s first 11 points – mainly on outside jumpers – and the star forward had 14 by the end of the opening quarter. New York took a 38-36 lead into halftime as Charles paced all scorers with 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting.

“Our defense wasn’t particularly bad,” Ogwumike said after the game. “Granted, she had half of their points, so we had to adjust in terms of personnel and schemes. But we were able to sustain the defensive intensity throughout the game. That’s what I appreciated about tonight.”

The Sparks held Charles in check after the intermission. Foul trouble limited her minutes, but when she was on the court in the second half, Charles shot just 3-of-7 for six points. After New York took a 64-63 lead late in the third quarter, L.A. exploded on a 14-0 run and never looked back.

To complement Parker’s big night, Ogwumike added 22 points and seven boards.

“I still think there’s a lot we can work on, but I like how we played collectively in the second half,” Sparks coach Brian Agler said. “We bonded together a little bit, had a little bit of a resemblance to how we played last year in regards to our enthusiasm, focus and communication. We were helping each other out, making plays for each other.”

The Sparks will now have a full week off before hosting Chicago next Tuesday, a much-needed break after their taxing road trip. Per Agler, guard Odyssey Sims should start practicing with the team again when they get back to L.A. Sims, who had 20 points and six assists in her Sparks debut, has been out the past three games with a minor ankle injury.

The defending champions hope Tuesday’s victory was the beginning of a trend in the right direction. They’re still figuring out how to incorporate some new pieces – one of them being Sims – and make up for the loss of Kristi Toliver in free agency. Parker has spent less than two weeks with the new group after finishing her season in Turkey.

“We have to start tying things together,” Agler said. “It’s nice to see us start moving in that direction, but there’s still so much we have to improve on. Both how we play physically and how we think the game.

“Our main thing is to keep improving and develop some consistency. We need to develop an identity.”