Next challenge for Mercury: Defending champion Sparks

After having eight days off, the defending WNBA champion Los Angeles Sparks are itching to begin their title defense.

And standing in their immediate way is the Phoenix Mercury, led by the league’s current scoring leader and by the all-time scoring leader.

Brittney Griner averaged a WNBA-best and career-high 21.9 points per game while Diana Taurasi became the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer earlier this season — ironically, against the Sparks.

The best-of-five semifinals gets underway with Game 1 on Tuesday at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

The Sparks are looking to become the first team in 15 years to win back-to-back championships.

“We like our chances against anybody in a best-of-five series,” Sparks All-Star forward Candace Parker told reporters after her team clinched a top-two finish last week.

The Sparks have added motivation as the team re-signed head coach Brian Agler to a multi-year contract extension on Monday.

“I love how our team and its core group have grown together and the relationships and the winning culture that we have developed,” Agler said. “I am fortunate to be a part of this.”

He’s also fortunate to coach the likes of Parker and fellow All-Stars Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray.

Similar to last season, the Sparks are the second seed behind Minnesota. The two advanced to the finals, with the Sparks winning the title in a Game 5 nail-biter.

One of the keys for Agler and the Sparks will be the play of defensive player of the year Alana Beard on Taurasi.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time and I don’t think I’ve ever coached a defensive player like Alana, on or off the ball,” Agler told the Los Angeles Daily News after a late-season win over the Lynx. “She’s getting steals, taking charges, blocking shots.”

For the second consecutive year, the Mercury had to win two consecutive single-elimination games, including a second-round road game, to get to the semifinals. Last year, it was the Minnesota Lynx who were standing in the way of Griner and Taurasi getting to the finals.

This year, it’s Ogwumike (18.8 points per game, sixth in the league), Parker (16.9 ppg, 11th), Beard and Gray (14.8 ppg, 19th).

A tall order for the Mercury, who lost all three meetings this season against the Sparks. But just getting to this point, Phoenix had to overcome obstacles that would have tripped up other teams.

First, Griner missed eight games after bruising a bone in her left knee and spraining an ankle in a July game against the Lynx. But she’s been unstoppable the past five games, averaging 27.8 points and 8.4 rebounds.

Then, a late-season swoon — a three-game skid — jeopardized a postseason berth for the Mercury after they seemingly had the sixth seed wrapped up. But a three-game win streak sealed their spot in the postseason.

After dispatching Seattle in a home-playoff game on Sept. 6, the Mercury traveled cross-country to take on the Connecticut Sun on Sunday.

Phoenix’s fortunes looked bleak — it trailed 37-20 with 7:18 left in the second quarter.

“We called a timeout, and I think everyone was just searching for something,” Taurasi told the Arizona Republic of the early deficit. “There comes a time in games if you are just going to lay down or fight back and try to get back into it. And at that moment, we said, ‘Lets’ just go back, take each possession, and try to do our best.’ And we did that.”

With their playoff lives on the line, the Mercury climbed back in the game and, with dead-eye accuracy, completed the comeback and earned a shot as the Sparks thanks to three late 3-pointers.

Griner scored a game-high 26 points and grabbed nine rebounds. Taurasi added 23 points and four assists.

Their supporting cast was outstanding.

Leilani Mitchell had 12 points, five assists. Reserve Monique Currie compiled 12 points, six rebounds and four assists. Yvonne Turner notched a game-high three 3-pointers for 11 points and dished out four assists.

“We’ve got to stop putting ourselves in this position,” Griner said of falling behind. “But you know what? We’ve done it so many times, we know what to expect now.”