Mercury try to even series with Sparks

The look on Candace Parker’s face early on Tuesday showed the pain she felt with every step as she tried to play with an injured ankle. Grimacing and muttering under her breath, Parker gutted it out and showed the heart of a lioness.

By the fourth quarter the grimace turned to a smile. That’s what winning can do — make the pain go away.

Champions overcome adversity — that’s what makes them champions, and a little luck.

Parker and the Los Angeles Sparks will hope their luck holds out when they host the Phoenix Mercury in Game 2 on Thursday.

On Tuesday, Los Angeles didn’t need any luck to beat Phoenix in Game 1 of their best-of-5 series. After a sluggish first half, the Sparks clamped down on defense and pulled away for a 79-66 win.

“It went just like I thought it would — you’ve got champions over there,” Sparks coach Brian Agler told the Daily Breeze after the game. “You’ve got two players (Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi) that are going to be Hall of Famers and well-coached. It’s going to be physical, that’s going to be part of the nature of this series.”

As expected, the game was physical with 26 fouls called on the Mercury and 20 on the Sparks. Three technical fouls also were called.

Unexpected was Parker’s bad luck and freak injury. During the pregame shootaround, Los Angeles’ leader rolled her ankle, placing her availability in immediate doubt. She went into the locker room and was heavily taped.

Typical of a champion, Parker didn’t fall back and blame her injury for the Sparks’ slow start. “I’ve been battle-tested my whole career with injuries. This was nothing new.”

The focal point of the Sparks’ offense also would play a crucial role in trying to contain Griner — the regular-season scoring champ. No one stops Griner, you just try to limit the damage.

And Griner had her way in the first half, scoring 14 points. Along with Leilani Mitchell, the Mercury controlled the physical first quarter. Despite traveling more than 13 hours on Monday to get to Los Angeles from Connecticut after beating the Sun to advance to the semifinals, Phoenix looked the fresher of the two.

“I thought we fought hard,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello told the Arizona Republic. “It was a hard-fought game. For the most part, we executed. They just had too many options to score. We just have to play with a little more poise and get open.”

The Sparks weathered the early storm and came out in the second half a different team.

“We thought they were real comfortable offensively so I felt we needed to up our intensity a bit, try to create some opportunity for our offense,” Agler said. “I think we did create a couple turnovers, got layups, and sort of got going.”

Sort of?

The defense turned the game around as the Sparks held the Mercury to six third-quarter points. In the middle was Defensive Player of the Year Alana Beard, who harassed Taurasi into a 2-for-10 shooting night and only six points — a playoff career low for the league’s all-time leading scorer.

“I think people are just now realizing how scary good she is,” Parker said of Beard. “It’s not necessarily all the things that show up in the stats sheet that makes you a good defender. It’s all those intangible things that Alana does naturally.”

And all those little things were on display against Taurasi.

“The way she competes every single day, every single possession. It’s a little bit of a lost art,” Taurasi told Swish Appeal. “There’s no one you would pick to go into games, or try to win a playoff series or a championship game with other than Alana, because she’s the glue that makes these teams really, really good. It’s her grind and her grit that reflect at the end of the game.”

Still, the key to the Sparks will be Parker’s ankle. She has less than 48 hours to receive treatment and see some improvement.