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Friday, August 20, 2010
Updated: August 21, 11:38 AM ET
Sparks clinch playoff berth


Los Angeles' DeLisha Milton-Jones didn't try to avoid the obvious recently when asked about the struggles the Sparks have had this summer.

After Lisa Leslie retired, Candace Parker was going to be the team's undisputed centerpiece. But Parker's season ended after 10 games because of a shoulder injury.

"You know, you go through the whole list of clichés to try to make it seem like it won't be that bad," Milton-Jones said. "Like, 'It doesn't matter; one player doesn't make the whole team.' But at the end of the day, that one player is vital.

"When it's someone who is also one of the faces of women's basketball … that is not just a hole. That is an astronomically large crater that we have to fill. What that player brought to us is something that can't be replaced. The way teams had to formulate defenses to stop Candace when she is in transition, when she is setting a pick, when a pick is set for her, when she's on the block, when she's on the 3-point line …"

Yep, Parker is a multifaceted nightmare for defenders. Milton-Jones knew as soon as she found out that Parker was done for the season that the Sparks were in trouble. It was an additional blow to L.A. to lose guard Betty Lennox to injury, too; she appeared in just 11 games.

But Milton-Jones held on to the hope that the Sparks would find a way to still get into the playoffs. She expected it would be kind of like dragging several large pieces of heavy luggage -- which had the wheels fall off -- to an airport gate that seemed five miles away. Oh, and don't even think there is a luggage cart available to help.

Well, on Friday night, the Sparks finally made it to that gate. And they didn't miss their flight. L.A. is going to the postseason. A 98-91 win over the Minnesota Lynx put the Sparks in the playoffs.

Milton-Jones had a season-high 24 points. Her fellow "old ladies" on the Sparks were also critically important. Tina Thompson led L.A. with 26 points, while Ticha Penicheiro had 12 assists. All three players are 35; Milton-Jones and Penicheiro will be 36 in September.

Thompson, who became the WNBA's career scoring leader last week, also had nine rebounds, while Milton-Jones had seven.

"We're feeling very, very good, but we know the hard part is about to begin for us," Milton-Jones said. "This win tonight … we can't get too high off it because we want to go in [to the postseason] and represent ourselves well."

Actually, they should take some pride in just making the playoffs. Thompson, Milton-Jones and Penicheiro have all won WNBA titles, and their resolve and leadership carried the Sparks in the worst times. When the going got rough this season, they kept on going.

The Sparks' victory added one more piece to the playoff puzzle, which is still not fully formed. Now we have seven of the eight postseason teams, but the matchups remain to be determined.

There was a fair amount of drama Friday in that regard. The San Antonio Silver Stars, despite losing Chamique Holdsclaw to an Achilles tendon injury earlier this week, scrambled for an important 75-61 victory over the Indiana Fever. It put the Silver Stars closer to the last Western Conference playoff spot, while the Lynx were pushed a little further away by the loss to L.A.

Speaking of pushing, a little of that went on in D.C., as the Washington Mystics edged the New York Liberty in a 75-74 thriller that ended New York's 10-game winning streak. There was a bit of a postgame scuffle that fortunately didn't last long or amount to much … but it did show that passions are more than a little inflamed at this point in the season.

Going into the final two days of the regular season, Washington, New York and Indiana are all at 21-12 and tied for first place in the Eastern Conference.

Ready for the big finish?