Aces’ progress will be tested against Sparks

In back-to-back games, Dallas lost to Los Angeles on Tuesday and beat Las Vegas on Wednesday. The games mirrored each other, albeit with a different outcome.

The Sparks defeated the Wings 87-83 as Dallas collapsed late after holding an eight-point lead for much of the game. The next night, the Aces had a chance for the home win but were outscored 10-2 in the final minutes and lost 97-91.

On Friday, the Wings’ two opponents clash on the Las Vegas Strip when the Aces play host to the Sparks, the team with WNBA’s best record. The Sparks (11-4) are coming off an 81-72 loss in Seattle on Thursday despite 27 points from Candace Parker.

The Sparks sit atop the standings, and the Aces (5-11) have shown tremendous improvement since last season, when they won only eight games as the San Antonio Stars.

The main reason things are looking up for the Aces is No. 1 overall draft pick A’ja Wilson, who has acclimated easily to the pro game. Wilson is averaging 20.2 points per game — third best in the league — and 8.9 rebounds.

Wilson has found a running mate in veteran Kayla McBride, who is averaging 18.7 points per game after scoring a career-high 38 points in the loss to the Wings. Wilson had 22 points and 15 boards in the game, but it’s the little things that are costing the Aces.

“We played hard enough to win,” coach Bill Laimbeer told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “I think we’re a little frustrated by the fact that we can’t get over the hump. But at the same time, it’s our fault because we’re doing the little things wrong.

“We’re not making the right plays at the right times.”

And against a blueblood like Los Angeles, that spells trouble for the Aces. Just ask the Wings, who couldn’t close out the Sparks earlier in the week even though Los Angeles’ Nneka Ogwumike sat out and coach Brian Agler got tossed after picking up his second technical.

Parker, back all the way from offseason back injury, led the comeback on the offensive end. Parker compiled a season-high 29 points to go along with seven assists and five rebounds against Dallas. Chelsea Gray poured in a season-high 23 points.

The performances by Parker and Gray did not go unnoticed.

“They just took over offensively,” Sparks center Jantel Lavender, who got the start in place of Ogwumike, said. “Most people have a really hard time dealing with them, especially when Candace is being aggressive in the tunnel. I think that she knew that she had to step up.”

Parker heaped praise on Gray, whose turnaround jumper in the lane put the Sparks up 84-81 late.

“Chelsea’s a great closer. We … trust her to make the best decision, and she came off and hit that little medium-range jump shot that’s hard to contest,” Parker said. “She’s done that for us a number of times.”

But defense is what made the difference, and continues to keep the Sparks as an elite team.

Los Angeles forced three turnovers to start the fourth quarter. The Sparks forced a total of 17 for the game.

In addition, Los Angeles held the Wings to under 40 percent shooting from the field.

The Sparks and Aces are on opposite ends when it comes to defense as Los Angeles is the stingiest team, allowing only 75.5 points per game. The Aces allow 85.8 points per game, second worst in the league.

Surprisingly, the teams are nearly tied in defensive field-goal percentage with the Sparks allowing opponents to shoot 43.7 percent and the Aces allowing 43.8 percent shooting.

Lavender might start again Friday, because Ogwumike’s status for the game is uncertain with a back injury that kept her out of Thursday’s loss.

The two teams won’t have to wait long for a rematch. The Aces travel to Los Angeles for a Sunday afternoon game at Staples Center.