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Sparks hold off Mercury 83-74 in throwback Parker-Taurasi duel

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Los Angeles let a 23-point lead dwindle to two in the fourth quarter before pulling out the win.

Los Angeles Sparks v Phoenix Mercury Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi are two of the all-time greats, college champions and players of the year, WNBA MVPs and title winners, and future first-ballot Hall of Famers.

Both players had a 2019 season to forget, each of them hampered by injuries throughout that limited their effectiveness even when they got to take the court. But they’re back in 2020, and for one night in the Wubble, it was fun to see the two legends go at one another. Parker finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds for her sixth straight double-double while Taurasi led all scorers with 19 points.

Parker and the Sparks dominated the first half Wednesday while Taurasi spearheaded a late charge to pull the Mercury to within two points with under five minutes to play after being behind by as many as 23. Phoenix wouldn’t score again for another three and a half minutes as L.A. applied the clamps and got eight consecutive stops to secure an 83-74 victory.

The defensive effort was what allowed the Sparks to build their lead. If there was any worry that the three-day layoff would sap the team of its momentum, L.A. quickly extinguished those doubts during the first quarter against Phoenix. The revamped Sparks lineup once again came out with fire and intensity on the defensive end of the floor, limiting the Mercury to just 10 points in the first quarter.

Chelsea Gray said after the team’s last game Saturday that the Sparks had been working on their communication on the defensive end, and it certainly seemed like all five players were defending on a string. Parker had the toughest assignment, tasked with guarding 6’9 Brittney Griner, and Parker did a phenomenal job fronting Griner and staying tall against her in the post, not the mention the rim protection she provided against the driving Mercury guards. Brittney Sykes had her arms all over the passing lanes and kept Taurasi in check early.

Those stops and turnovers allowed the Sparks to get out in transition, and it was beautiful basketball to see Parker and Gray throwing the outlets and Sykes running the open court to finish.

The Sparks lost some of their discipline in the third quarter, getting jump-shot happy on offense instead of moving the ball and letting Phoenix expose them in transition. Parker noted postgame that the Mercury were getting open lay-ups off of made baskets, as L.A. was simply not getting back in time.

Bria Hartley hit the team’s first 3-pointer of the evening 29 minutes into the game as Taurasi found her before the defense was set. That opened the floodgates for Phoenix, who proceed to knock down six triples in the final period. Four of those belonged to Taurasi, who was a woman possessed after being assessed with a technical foul midway through the third.

At 73-71, the Sparks didn’t even call timeout, knowing that a stop and score could let the Mercury tie the game or even take the lead. They knew what they had to do to clean up their mistakes, and as Gray said, “We decided to lock in defensively.” That led to eight straight stops and eventually an 11-point win, but Parker wasn’t so charitable about her team’s ability to simply flip the switch. When asked how the Sparks got back to their defensive identity, she said the better question would be why the team suddenly decided to turn off their defensive pressure and let Phoenix back into the game.

Even if there were some unpleasant moments towards the end, the Sparks collected their fifth straight win and swept the season series against the Mercury, staying in a three-way tie for second place in the WNBA standings. Winning games by comfortable margins is always a plus, but the team got some experience executing in crunch time, something that could prove useful in the second half of the season and the playoffs.