- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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TULSA, Okla. -- It was late in the fourth quarter, the game already decided, the Los Angeles Sparks' road losing "streak" definitively over … but there was still a gem of a play to enjoy. The Sparks' Kristi Toliver, near the arc, lofted a perfectly timed pass inside to Candace Parker, like a quarterback connecting with a favorite receiver in the corner of the end zone.
Parker finished -- of course she did -- for her final basket of her season-high scoring night. In 28 minutes, Parker had 30 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 assists in the Sparks' 94-78 victory over Tulsa.
CP3's legion of fans, going all the way back to her Naperville Central High days, have jabbed me a bit -- or a lot -- since we did our espnW preseason All-WNBA first-team picks and I didn't include her.
The players I did have -- Tamika Catchings, Maya Moore, Tina Charles, Diana Taurasi, and Cappie Pondexter -- aren't exactly a collection of clowns, three of them being former league MVPs (which Parker is, too). I'm not even sure which of that quintet should be left off to put Parker in, especially if we have to include two "true" guards. But yeah, Parker belongs. I feel like -- deservedly -- I am going to spend the rest of the summer/fall (and perhaps my life) being reminded that CP3 wasn't in my preseason top five.
I mentioned this to Parker after Thursday's game, and she just chuckled. Suffice it to say, Parker -- winner of the Wade Trophy, Naismith Award, WNBA Rookie of the Year, WNBA MVP, etc. -- isn't sweating not making somebody's preseason all-whatever team.
Parker is focused on one thing, and that's the Sparks playing the very best they can. Which she hopes is championship-level.
"We clicked, and I was proud of everybody because everyone contributed," Parker said. "We have somebody who's willing to fill every role on our team."
Including the role of superstar, which Parker looked every bit of Thursday. She scored from all over, including one almost unfair drive to the basket where it seemed like she floated with a couple of giant steps and a wrist-flick past the entire "What on earth are we supposed to do against that?" Tulsa team.
Toliver was pretty awesome herself, with 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting. Even if you factor in that the Shock weren't very good defensively Thursday -- and had starting forward Glory Johnson for just 15 minutes because of a neck injury -- the Sparks were flat-out terrific. They were fun to watch despite what essentially turned into a blowout.
"We were really good offensively," L.A. coach Carol Ross said. "But a lot of our offensive [issues] on the road have been defensive problems. We got 11 steals tonight, and it gave us some diversity on the offensive end. That got us in the open court, which complemented our half-court game. We've got a great group to play 94 feet. They run well, catch well, score well."
Sparks point guard Lindsey Harding playfully punched Parker on the shoulder after the game, teasing, "She's trying to take my job -- did you see her calling plays? Big people always want to play like guards."
Parker countered, "Yeah, and you went down to the post in shootaround!"
The Sparks, now 9-4, were jovial, as they should have been. Their supposed road "woes" were really not a big deal, as they'd played just four games away from Staples Center.
Still, they felt happy to get that first road victory of 2013, and it is timely. Los Angeles plays seven of its next 10 games on the road, including five in a row from Aug. 2-10.
In the more immediate future, though, Los Angeles plays two games against Phoenix, sandwiched around a visit from East-leading Atlanta.
The Sparks' next game, Sunday at Phoenix, will bring out Mercury fans in full voice screaming the time-honored Arizona motto, "Beat L.A.!" But that is an especially difficult thing to do when the Sparks shoot as well as they did Thursday. L.A. shot 54.9 percent from the field (39-of-71), including 7-of-13 from 3-point range.
"It's tough," said Tiffany Jackson-Jones, who had nine points in her 2013 debut for Tulsa after missing all of 2012 because of maternity leave and the early part of this season with a stress fracture. "With Parker and Toliver -- you can't let both of them score like that. But today, everybody for them played great. We didn't stop anyone."
As pleased as she was with her team's offense, Parker immediately pointed out that the true measure of the Sparks will be determined by games that actually are not like Thursday's.
"When we're knocking down shots, we're unbelievable," Parker said. "But the next step will be when we win and we're not making shots. We were able to get into a flow tonight because we shot the ball that way. We play defense harder, we rebound, we're running, we have energy.
"The test for us will be when the shots aren't going in -- are we still able to play good enough defense? This team can be great defensively: We have speed, quickness, explosiveness, and skill at every position. I think it will be a great test against Phoenix. They like to get out, get up a lot of shots and outscore you. Are we going to be able to hold them down on the offensive end?"
The Sparks lost their first matchup with the Mercury 97-81 in Phoenix on June 14. But Los Angeles now has won four in a row, and seven of its last nine. The only losses in that stretch were road games on consecutive days at Western Conference-leading Minnesota and East second-place team Chicago.
"It felt really good today for us to be in that kind of zone," said Toliver, who had a 29-point game last week. "We wanted to get a win on the road, but we weren't panicking by any means. We would like to have home-court advantage during the playoffs, and we have to win on the road for that."
The postseason is a quite a way down the road. But the way Minnesota and second-place Los Angeles performed Tuesday and Thursday in nationally televised games had to get observers psyched about the excitement of seeing how the West will be won this year. It's expected that third-place Phoenix will be a contender, too, and we'll see which of the other three teams will grab the fourth playoff spot and try to play spoiler.
"When you go on the road, you've got to feel good early," Ross said. "This was important for us, because we didn't have confidence on the road. With Candace and Kristi tonight -- that's a thing of beauty. You can run plays for them, but you don't even have to. They can create on their own, and their offensive IQ is exceptionally high."
Candace Parker scored 30 points, Kristi Toliver added 25 and the Sparks played a terrific game from end to end Thursday in their first road victory of the season.