Candace Parker’s MVP season will end prematurely if the Los Angeles Sparks can’t bounce back from losing their Western Conference semifinals opener to Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury. Parker and the Sparks must win on the road Saturday night in order to avoid a quick two-game sweep at the hands of the Mercury.
The same day Parker was awarded her second league MVP trophy, the quest for her first WNBA championship was dealt a major blow Thursday when Los Angeles’ six-game home winning streak ended with an 86-75 loss to Phoenix in Game 1 of this best-of-three series. Parker totaled 28 points and eight rebounds but was outshined by Taurasi, who had 30 points and seven assists for the third-seeded Mercury.
The Sparks, who lost to the Minnesota Lynx in last year’s conference finals, earned the West’s second seed by tying the East-winning Chicago Sky for the second-best record in the league at 24-10.
Parker brought her team together on the floor after the final buzzer for some words of encouragement.
“She just said we’ve got to respond like champions, because we know the caliber of play that we can play at,” Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike said. “It’s something that we’ve been talking about all season, that we just have to fight back.”
In order to do that, they’ll likely need to contain Taurasi. The veteran guard finished second in scoring during the regular season at 20.3 points per game but was not in the top five of the league’s MVP voting. She averaged 29.7 points in the first three games this year against the Sparks before scoring eight in 14 minutes of an 89-55 loss in Los Angeles in Sunday’s regular-season finale.
On Thursday, Taurasi scored 14 points in the third quarter to spark the decisive rally, finished 11 of 13 from the free-throw line and committed one turnover while playing all 40 minutes.
“We’re just not making her uncomfortable enough,” Los Angeles coach Carol Ross said. “With her, you have to be able to change things, because she’s very smart.”
Though the Mercury shot 50.7 percent, held the Sparks to 41.1 percent, forced 16 turnovers and overcame a 39-27 disadvantage on the boards, Taurasi kept things in perspective.
“We know this game means nothing if we go back to Phoenix and lose,” she told the Mercury’s official website. “To come back (to Los Angeles) on Monday would be a very dangerous scenario for us, because we know what a great home team they are. We’re going back home and looking at the film and seeing the things that we can improve on. We’re going to see if we can do them for longer stretches and just give ourselves a chance to win.”
Taurasi scored a season-high 34 on 11-of-19 shooting in a 97-81 home win over the Sparks on June 14. She scored 23 exactly one month later when Los Angeles last visited, but Parker’s 21 helped the Sparks win 88-76.
The Mercury, who have won six of seven at home overall, last reached the conference finals in 2011, when they were swept by the Lynx.