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Sparks clinch playoff spot with 84-79 win over Dream

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The bench and the defense supplemented strong performances from Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray, and Brittney Sykes.

Atlanta Dream v Los Angeles Sparks Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

There’s something about the Atlanta Dream that proves oddly challenging for the Los Angeles Sparks. Not quite challenging enough to steal wins, but just challenging enough to make things interesting.

A year ago, the Dream were the only team to take the Sparks to overtime. And just over a week ago they again pushed the Sparks to the extra period, this time forcing Candace Parker to enter hero mode to keep L.A. alive.

And on Sunday afternoon they again took it to the Sparks, in a back-and-forth affair that featured a whopping 21 lead changes. And, just as in their other recent meetings, the Sparks came away narrowly victorious, winning 84-79 and becoming the third team to clinch a spot in the WNBA playoffs.

It might be the ninth-straight win for the Sparks (12-3), and the 12th loss in 13 games for the Dream (3-13), but it was anything but easy.

L.A. couldn’t find offense early, mustering just 17 first-quarter points, and 37 in the first half. The frontcourt did them no favors, as Candace Parker was held scoreless, and Nneka Ogwumike exited after just seven minutes due to discomfort in her back.

But they started to find their rhythm in the second half, aided by the stellar playmaking skills of Parker (7 assists) and point guard Chelsea Gray (5 assists).

And as the minutes waned, they started putting the ball in the hands of Brittney Sykes, who has emerged as a star for the surging Sparks, and led the team with 15 points.

With the game hanging in the balance, Sykes scored six unanswered points, turning a 74-72 deficit into a 78-74 lead. That put Parker (who finished with 9 points and 10 rebounds) in position to close the door.

L.A. wouldn’t have been in a spot to secure the win were it not for the brilliant performance of the bench. The Sparks’ subs outscored the Dream’s 37-11, with Kristine Anigwe offering strong minutes in Ogwumike’s absence. That, combined with an all-around strong defensive effort led by Parker, was enough for L.A. to keep the winning streak going, and continue making their presence felt in the race for the top seeds in the WNBA playoffs.

The Sparks are back at it on Monday when they play the Minnesota Lynx.