WNBA contenders Mercury, Sparks meet

The last time Phoenix and Los Angeles were on the court together, the Mercury were headed back to the Valley of the Sun and the Sparks were headed to the WNBA Finals.

Los Angeles swept the Mercury and went on to lose to the Minnesota Lynx in the finals after holding a 2-1 series edge.

Phoenix knows the path to the WNBA title most likely goes through Minnesota or Los Angeles, and Sunday, the Mercury have a chance to make an early season statement that they are a team built and ready to contend for a championship.

Even without Candace Parker, there will be plenty of star power on display at Staples Center.

Nneka Ogwumike. Chelsea Gray. Alana Beard. Diana Taurasi. Brittney Griner. DeWanna Bonner.

Parker has yet to play this season. She’s listed as day-to-day for what’s being called a minor back injury. Expect Taurasi and Griner to try to exploit Parker’s absence. Also, expect Sandy Brondello’s squad to be more focused than last time out, when the Mercury (2-1) lost Friday to the Seattle Storm.

“I think we started off the game really well and then we got a little bit too comfortable,” Brondello said. “They started making shots and putting a lot more pressure on us and it took us totally out of our game. … I just thought our effort wasn’t at the level it needed to be.”

The Sparks (2-1) fell to the Connecticut Sun on Thursday with Chelsea Gray scoring 21 points and Odyssey Sims adding 20. Ogwumike, going up against younger sister Chiney, added 19 points.

Los Angeles squandered a nine-point, fourth-quarter lead.

“We didn’t turn it over much during the game, but in that stretch we turned it over two or three times and they cut the lead back and really got the momentum,” Sparks coach Brian Agler said. “They played well and really outplayed us in the fourth quarter.”

Connecticut outrebounded Los Angeles 29-14. Parker not being in the lineup certainly contributed to the huge disparity.

“In transition, we were not paying much attention to the matchups,” Ogwumike said. “We were not great at the point of attack and that messes you up on the offensive boards, and this is not like us.”

Having a problem rebounding spells trouble for the Sparks with Bonner (8.0 rebounds per game) and Griner (7.0) looming even though in Friday’s loss to the Storm, Griner had only four boards.

“Whatever my team wants me to do I just try to do it,” Griner said. “I felt like my offense wasn’t too good so I had to do something and I can always rely on defense.”

The Mercury always can rely on Taurasi, the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer, who scored a team-high 23 points on 8-for-15 shooting from the field, while going 4-for-8 from 3-point range.

Without Parker in the lineup, Bonner could have a field day. Bonner ranks third in Mercury history in career double-doubles with 27. Against the Storm, she finished with nine points and nine rebounds while adding three assists, two blocks and a steal.