There may be no more uncomfortable team in the WNBA right now than the Los Angeles Sparks, which is an interesting place for them to be considering that for most of this season the Sparks have dominated their way through the rest of the league.
After losing two of three heading into the Olympic break, and now two in a row out of it, the Sparks – who started the season 20-1, tying the 1998 Houston Comets for best start ever – are challenged by true adversity for the first time all year.
Los Angeles, which fell a half-game behind Minnesota for the top spot in the league standings, has played its last seven games on the road and have two more road games in this stretch on back-to-back nights against Dallas and San Antonio, a pair of struggling teams that could offer Los Angeles a chance to get back on the right track. Or further shake their confidence.
Candace Parker said last week, coming out of the Olympic break, that the Sparks were solely focused on taking the next step to win a title for the first time since 2002.
“We are staying in the present. That’s what we talk about,” Parker said. “We are happy with the way we’ve played (this season), but not satisfied and I feel like that’s the best way to look at things.”
Parker’s motivation this season has been a persistent subject of speculation after she was left off the U.S. Olympic roster. Have those motivations been projected on her?
“My motivation is wanting to win a WNBA title,” Parker said. “We haven’t won a title since I came to L.A. But everyone on the team has that in mind.”
Parker said the Sparks have raised their own expectations and now it’s time to live up to them, a sentiment more true now that at any point this season. The Sparks will play five of their final six games at Staples Center.
“Brian is pushing us, challenging us to be better,” Parker said of Sparks head coach Brian Agler. “We are a mature team; we know what we are capable of. He’s not pushing us to do anything we can’t do. Everything we expect of ourselves is within our reach.”
Phoenix has won three in a row coming out of the Olympic break, including Sunday’s 70-66 home win over Los Angeles, a statement victory for a team that has the pedigree to be a title contender a month from now.
The Mercury have gotten back on track by playing their best defense of the season, giving up just 67.7 points a game over this post-break stretch. Phoenix has given up more than 84 points a game this season overall.
“We are playing team defense and that was an area we knew that we weren’t playing up to potential,” said Mercury coach Sandy Brondello. “That is the focus we had after the break. We came back with a renewed focus. That’s what it’s about. It’s just committing to defense.”
Phoenix center Brittney Griner said the Olympic break came at a good time for the Mercury, who are ready to put together their best run of the season heading into the playoffs, despite the fact that they are going to close the regular season on the road for six of their eight remaining games.
“When we let our defense kind of run through our offense like that when we’re getting stops and scoring, it’s really hard to stop us,” Griner said.
While Los Angeles is battling to hold on to its spot at the top of the standings, Seattle is battling at the opposite end of the playoff picture, looking for a way in.
Seattle’s Breanna Stewart admitted last week she was a little tired coming off the Olympics in Rio and right back into WNBA schedule with only a few days’ transition. This is on the heels of Stewart finishing her storied college career at UConn and starting her professional career on a different coast a little over a month later.
But Stewart said it’s like flipping a switch.
“You turn off the USA experience and turn things back on with the Storm,” Stewart said. “To be able to make the playoffs this year with this team would be huge in my first season. It would be huge for the franchise.”
Seattle is currently locked with Washington at 10-16 with both teams vying for the eighth and final playoff spot. Connecticut is only a half-game game behind, and Dallas just a game behind the Sun.
The Storm have split their first two games out of the break, an admirable result considering it was the toughest back-to-back return of any team in the league. Seattle defeated Los Angeles at home and then fell to Minnesota on the road.
“The playoffs are definitely a reachable goal. It just depends on what we do with the task at hand,” said Stewart, who had 18 points and eight rebounds against the defending champion Lynx after a rough first game back vs. L.A. (2-of-13 from the floor).
Stewart acknowledged that moving from the NCAA Championship to the WNBA Draft to the WNBA to the Olympics and back to the WNBA has been a “whirlwind” of a year.
“I’ve gotten through it by focusing on one thing at a time,” Stewart said. “It’s easier if you make things smaller. Instead of looking at the fact that two months from now I’ll be in China, I’ll just focus on the fact that we have a game tomorrow.”
With eight regular season games left in her illustrious career, Tamika Catchings is trying very hard not to get sentimental, but everyone else just won’t let her get away with it. On Tuesday night, Catchings likely played her last game against fellow Olympian, friend and WNBA foe Diana Taurasi, for example.
“I am trying not to count all the ‘lasts,’ but everybody keeps reminding me of them,” Catchings said. “I don’t want to think about it today. I’ll think about it later.”
Catchings said she is feeling “strong and excited” about the home stretch of her career, which she hopes will include a long postseason run.
“We just focused on moving forward and getting a playoff spot,” Catchings said.
With the Olympics in our rear-view mirror, a couple of title-contending WNBA teams are signing international players to shore up their rosters for the postseason.
Minnesota brought Anna Cruz back late last week. Cruz played a key reserve role in Minnesota’s title run a year ago. Cruz played 22 games in Minnesota last season, averaging 8.0 points a game and providing a tough defensive presence on the perimeter.
On Tuesday, the Sparks signed Sandrine Gruda, the French post player who played in Los Angeles in 2014 and has four WNBA seasons under her belt. She will add even more depth to an already stacked Sparks frontline.
The Mystics also re-tooled by adding Australian guard and seven-year WNBA veteran Leilani Mitchell and LaToya Sanders, a 6-foot-3 post player that has played in the WNBA in four previous seasons and most recently for Turkey in Rio. These additions can help counter the loss of Bria Hartley, who will miss the rest of the season because she is pregnant with her first child.
Minnesota’s Rebekkah Brunson became the league’s all-time leader in offensive rebounds last weekend, passing fellow Lynx legend Taj McWilliams-Franklin…
Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the 2016 season.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.