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LOS ANGELES -- It doesn't require much imagination to take a mental snapshot of the floor at the Staples Center on Thursday night, project ahead a couple of weeks and see the same two teams tangling for the WNBA's Western Conference title.
The Los Angeles Sparks played their final regular-season game Thursday night against the Minnesota Lynx in a game that had no impact on the standings or first-round playoff matchups.
But it was a warning shot.
|Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker each had 22 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Sparks on Thursday.|
"We know this is a team that possibly we might have to go through to win a championship," said Sparks star Candace Parker, whose 22 points and 11 rebounds led Los Angeles to a 92-76 win. "I think everybody laid it out on the court, played with a lot of energy. This was a our last regular-season game, so we wanted to wrap it up and make a statement."
Sparks coach Carol Ross prefers the term "set a tone."
"I challenged the team to come out and swing first and see what happens," she said.
What happened is that the Sparks made a one-year U-turn from a team that didn't make the playoffs to one that looks well capable of winning a title, closing out an impressive regular season with an impressive win that ran their home record to an impressive 16-1.
But the relish was strangely lacking in the Los Angeles locker room. Too many players in there know what it feels like to watch the postseason from the couch, or while packing their bags early for the overseas season.
Parker said as much to the crowd after the game.
So excuse the Sparks if they don't look quite satisfied with themselves, despite holding the league's best team to a season-low shooting performance and dominating in the paint.
"We are going into the playoffs on a good note," said guard Alana Beard, who finished with 13 points. "We are coming together, people are finding their niche. I feel good about it, but at the same time, we have some things we need to clean up."
Parker, completing her first full WNBA slate since she was a rookie back in 2008, was joined in her double-double effort by WNBA rookie of the year shoo-in Nneka Ogwumike, who also had 22 points and 11 rebounds.
And now some rest.
The schedule is kind to Los Angeles, which finished at 24-10 with a fourth straight victory. The regular season officially wraps up Sunday with three games, but the Sparks are done now until the postseason opens Thursday against San Antonio at the Galen Center on the USC campus.
The Lynx, who played without point guard Lindsay Whalen, have two more games against Phoenix and the Silver Stars before they can switch gears to the defense of their WNBA title.
Both teams will head into their respective playoff series -- Los Angeles against San Antonio and Minnesota against Seattle -- as considerable favorites. Each has played some of the best basketball in the league all year. Both were 16-1 at home.
But Minnesota has to shake this game off.
The Lynx looked out of sorts without Whalen, who is a "little bit sick," according to coach Cheryl Reeve.
The Lynx got into deep holes to start each half, shot a season-low 35 percent and were outscored 52-24 in the paint.
"I have to give [the Sparks] credit," Lynx guard Seimone Augustus said. "They were very aggressive on the defensive end just doing what they do -- trying to get deflections, trying to bump you out of a cut. But I feel like our offense also was very stagnant."
During these past couple of weeks, Los Angeles has looked more and more like a complete team, aggressive on defense and multi-dimensional on offense with Parker back to early-season form after hitting a lull after the Olympic break.
But complete and completely confident are not the same thing, and the Sparks seem to feel like a little humility -- even in the face of a season-ending, message-sending win -- is a better strategy.
"We looked at this as if it were any other game and we needed a win," DeLisha Milton-Jones said. "We were going to come out and work on the things we needed to work on. This is not a time for us to take days off. We have to keep the ball rolling."