- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Despite ups and downs to the season, Tina Thompson and the Sparks are still in WNBA playoff contention.
TULSA, Okla. -- You put your detective's magnifying glass to the Los Angeles Sparks. You interrogate the players, older and younger, plus the coach who took over the helm 11 games into the season in his second tour of duty with the franchise.
You are on this probe to find the key reasons -- other than the lit-up-in-neon one that's glaringly obvious -- the Sparks again find themselves trying to rally late in the season for a playoff spot. Didn't we see this last season?
Indeed, the Sparks acknowledge. They smile ruefully, or grimace, or do both while lamenting the team's chase of elusive consistency.
"Coming into the season, having everybody from day one in training camp, I saw the talent," veteran guard Ticha Penicheiro said. "I saw how deep we were, how big we were. But it doesn't matter in theory how good we are if we don't apply it on court.
"So a lot of times, I'm disappointed because I feel like we are this beautiful orange -- and then you squeeze it, and no juice comes out of it."
Leave it to the WNBA's longtime playmaking artist-in-residence to provide such a vivid image of a team that looks better than its 11-15 record. There's the creative flare of Penicheiro; the post player toughness/versatility of Thompson, DeLisha Milton-Jones, Ebony Hoffman and rookie Jantel Lavender; and the development and energy of guards/wings Kristi Toliver, Noelle Quinn, Natasha Lacy and Jenna O'Hea.
So was the aforementioned glaringly obvious reason really enough to leave the Sparks with little more than rinds this season? Well yes, actually it was. But now that Candace Parker has returned from injury, the Sparks are squeezing out victories. Such as Sunday's, when they avoided the unthinkable -- a loss to last-place Tulsa -- and scrambled for a 73-67 victory.
Whether they'll get enough wins to overtake Phoenix or Seattle or San Antonio remains to be seen. The Sparks have eight games left; it helps that five of them are at home, including two against Tulsa. Los Angeles faces Seattle twice, plus one game each against Phoenix and San Antonio.
"We do have a good team," L.A. coach Joe "Jellybean" Bryant said. "The veterans have been great: Ticha, Tina and DeLisha. How they've dealt with the younger players and talked to them; I'm really happy with those three.
"Having Candace back -- that makes a coach look good. And, you know, this is a fun time of the year. We have a goal, a challenge: to make the playoffs. If you can't get excited about this, you don't need to play basketball."
The Sparks must keep winning. But they also need one of the other three postseason-contending West teams -- Minnesota already clinched its playoff spot Saturday -- to go on a skid.
"We've been all over the place," Thompson said of the Sparks' peaks and valleys. "But we're resilient."
They've had to be. The Sparks lost Parker 10 games into the 2010 season with a shoulder injury, but came back to grab a playoff sport. They lost her again this season seven games in with a knee injury.
If there was any doubt -- which there shouldn't have been -- about Parker's MVP worth to the franchise, this past week should have dissipated that. She has averaged 18.5 points and 8.3 rebounds in her four games back. The Sparks are 2-2 in those games, but they might have been 0-4 without Parker. Her 23 points and nine rebounds Sunday kept L.A. from allowing the Shock its second victory of the season.
"There's still a chance," Milton-Jones said of L.A.'s playoff hopes. "We suffered losing streaks this year, and that was difficult to handle. Communication was the key; we kept talking to one another. Whether it was expressing motivational words or phrases or, heck, clichés. Whatever we could do to keep everyone on the same page with a positive heart."
All things considered, staying positive has been one the Sparks' biggest challenges in 2011.
They started the season, as Penicheiro noted, with lots of reasons for optimism and got out to a 4-1 record. Then they began a ridiculous stretch in which they had 11 of their next 13 games on the road. Parker was hurt during the second game of that stretch, suffering a torn lateral meniscus June 26. The Sparks lost that game in New York, dropping to 4-3.
You could theorize that even without Parker the Sparks should have been able to stay in one of the West's top-four spots. In fact, the Sparks seemingly think that. When coach Jennifer Gillom was replaced by Bryant July 10, after the team had lost five in a row, the players said they felt they should have been performing better.
"We weren't playing to our potential," Penicheiro said. "Unfortunately, sometimes the coach gets fired and is the scapegoat. When Jellybean took over, we won two games but then we reverted back to what we were. It was like we never knew what team was going to show up in what quarter."
This is the way successful athletes think. Penichiero and Thompson didn't make the recent list of the WNBA's top-15 players of the league's first 15 seasons by letting themselves off the hook when their teams didn't play well. Penicheiro, in fact, regained her starting spot and provided needed scoring outbursts earlier this month when the tide gradually began to turn more in L.A.'s favor right before Parker's return.
Yet the single biggest factor in L.A.'s woes -- Parker's absence -- was complicated by smaller but still important factors.
The Sparks were without Parker the entire month of July, when they had eight games on the road and just two at home. So the schedule during that time did not work in L.A.'s favor.
Also, the Sparks are in a Western Conference that has the defending league champion (Seattle); the team that won the 2007 and '09 titles (Phoenix); and the team with the WNBA's best record this season (Minnesota). San Antonio, which made the WNBA finals in 2008, has kept its core group fairly solid for the past few seasons.
Admittedly, other teams besides L.A. have had injury woes, too -- most notably, Seattle was without reigning MVP Lauren Jackson from late June until she came back Saturday. San Antonio lost promising rookie Danielle Adams just after the All-Star break and is awaiting her return.
The Sparks have said they believe they should have held it together without Parker better than they did. But it's not that difficult to see why they didn't.
When healthy, Parker has been the definition of consistency going back to her days at Tennessee (and to high school in Illinois, for that matter). She rarely has bad games. She will get points, rebounds and assists, plus be a defensive anchor.
Beyond that, Parker is a sense-of-the-moment player who finds the proverbial "other gear" even when you think she's playing at capacity. That extra adrenaline boost, or whatever it is, the very best competitors get when a game is on the line always kicks in for Parker.
So when the Sparks lost her, it's not just that they lost one starter. Or even just that they lost their best player. They in fact lost the strongest component of their identity as a team.
Parker isn't going to say that, of course. She credits her teammates for holding on as best they could.
"It would have been a big blow for our team if any player went out," she said. "If it was DeLisha, or Tina, or Ticha or whoever. It's like everything works on a scale. When it's balanced, it's good. When something is off, it's going to affect everything."
Yes, but Parker's impact on this group of Sparks is so large, there really is no effective counter-balancing it when she's not there.
"It's been fun to be out on the court, to contribute and play," Parker said. "I was obviously very anxious for those seven weeks I was out. I watched a lot of basketball. I didn't come back before I was ready."
Parker missed part of 2009 after having her daughter, then larger parts of 2010 and '11 with injuries. At 25, she has been through a lot health-wise but she didn't even consider shutting it down for the 2011 WNBA season.
"No, I never let that enter my mind," Parker said. "I'm upset that I missed a good chunk of games. But despite everything, we still have a shot at the playoffs."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
14dBonnie D. Ford