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Sparks look to step it up in playoffs

Lindsey Harding and L.A. won six straight home games entering the playoffs. Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES -- There's an edge to the playoff conversation in the Sparks locker room.

Hunger, no doubt about it. But the Sparks don't necessarily feel like they've played their best basketball yet.

And they're impatient to get to that level.

"There are a lot of areas where we still need to improve," coach Carol Ross said.

No better time than the cusp of the WNBA playoffs, which Los Angeles helps open Thursday with a home game against Phoenix (ESPN2 and WatchESPN, 10 p.m. ET). The Sparks believed they were good enough to stay toe-to-toe with Minnesota in the Western Conference race, but they stubbed that toe in a couple of games late in the season. That's all it took for an unsatisfying second-place finish.

But finishing as the runner-up in the conference race doesn't really compare to the feeling of walking off your home floor after a crushing playoff disappointment -- and the Sparks know that feeling as well.

Last fall, the Lynx stormed back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit at the Staples Center, hit a shot at the horn and completed a two-game sweep of the Sparks in the Western Conference finals.

It was painful, a sting that still lingers.

"We have a bitter taste in our mouths about it," Sparks guard Kristi Toliver said. "Losing on your home court in the final game like that, it hurts."

In order to turn that pain into a title run a year later, the Sparks must improve on what did during the regular season -- finishing 24-10 with a 15-2 record at home. Los Angeles capped the regular season by winning 12 of 16 games, all four losses coming on the road. The Sparks haven't lost a game at Staples Center since falling 73-66 to Seattle on July 25.

With a bevy of scoring options, Los Angeles is one of the league's most talented offensive teams. Star Candace Parker averages 17.9 points per game, followed by second-year forward Nneka Ogwumike's 14.6 scoring average, Kristi Toliver's 14.1 pgg and point guard Lindsey Harding's 10.9 average.

"We feel like we have the pieces," reserve forward Marissa Coleman said.

On most nights, Los Angeles has been a pretty good sum of its parts. But there has to be something else to win a title. Chemistry. Consistency. Even a bit of luck.

Parker has been in the league six years now and is waiting to play in her first WNBA Finals game. Same goes for five-year veteran Toliver and point guard Alana Beard, now in her eighth season.

"When we are in a flow, it's a thing of beauty, and when it's stagnant, that's trouble for us," Parker said. "We need to play every possession. This isn't baseball, you aren't going to shut a team out. But we need just to put our big-girl panties on and go to work. This is how it's going to be."

Los Angeles' first-round opponent, Phoenix, is surging, with nine wins in 12 games. The Mercury have made big strides under new coach Russ Pennell.

The Sparks' 89-55 rout of the Mercury in Sunday's regular-season finale -- with Phoenix going most of the game without Diana Taurasi and all of it without Candice Dupree -- is misleading. Phoenix can score, just like Los Angeles can. The Mercury are led by a superstar in Taurasi, just like the Sparks with Parker.

So Los Angeles is looking for the things that will make a difference in a short, close series.

"We are trying to find each other's strengths and exploiting those," Ogwumike said. "I think we saw it earlier in the season and we want to take ourselves back to that point. I think it's a matter of the wear of the season, but there are no let-ups now. We want to make sure there are no potholes in this journey."

Ross talks about a team that needs to attack the glass better -- the Sparks narrowly outrebounded opponents this season (34.6 to 33.6) and were outrebounded on the offensive end.

Toliver said her biggest issue in the backcourt is pace.

"Even in practice, we are playing faster and faster," Toliver said. "To be at our best, we want to be playing at a fast pace. Offensively, we have all the threats we need. Everybody understands their roles and what they need to do for us to be successful.

"I think we will be very disappointed if we didn't end up in the Finals."