That series ended in embarrassment for the Sparks, as a 78-56 loss in Game 3 left them swept in the series by a combined 57 points. Candace Parker played only 11 minutes in the finale, putting the cherry on the top of a sundae that she and the team hoped to forget. And not long after the Sparks had packed up for the offseason, a report from ESPN was published that highlighted rifts between the players and coach Derek Fisher, as well as inappropriate behavior from General Manager Penny Toler, who was swiftly ousted.
Now, a year later, the Sparks’ road to the WNBA Finals once again runs through the Sun, with a single-elimination second round game at 6:00 p.m. on ESPN2.
Things have changed for both teams.
Parker is healthy once more, shaking off the struggles of 2019 to put herself in the MVP conversation in 2020, and taking home the AP Defensive Player of the Year award. Chiney Ogwumike and Maria Vadeeva are gone, the former opting out of the bubble season, and the latter unable to join the team due to travel restrictions. Fisher is in his second year, and looking far more comfortable at the helm of the ship.
Change came for both teams, but the Sparks seem to have truly evolved. A year after having a disconnect with her coach on public display while the team sputtered and stalled when it mattered most, Parker told reporters, “I love playing with the players on our team and I think that we’re ready and built for the playoffs.”
L.A. finished with the third seed (the same as a year ago), and a 15-7 record, but certainly looked improved in 2020. Parker led the charge, averaging 14.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game. Her All-Star teammates Chelsea Gray (14.0 points and 5.3 assists per game) and Nneka Ogwumike (13.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game) took some minor steps backwards, but still left the Sparks with a deadly three-headed monster.
But their X-factor might be Brittney Sykes, an offseason acquisition who started the year on the bench. The Sparks caught fire when Sykes was inserted into the starting lineup, winning her first eight games as a starter. Against a versatile Sun team, Sykes’ athleticism and diverse skillset will be needed.
So too will composure, which L.A. lacked in the matchup last year. The Sparks couldn’t overcome the adversity that Connecticut handed them, and had no secondary creation when Jasmine Thomas and her help defenders forced the ball out of Gray’s hands in the halfcourt.
They’re planning on having those wrinkles ironed out, but the symbolism of the team standing on the other side of the court isn’t lost on them.
“I’d like to say it’s next team up,” Parker told reporters Thursday morning. “Obviously we struggled with Connecticut last year — everyone knows the way 2019 ended. And I think sometimes life throws things like this at you, you know? To see what you’ve learned, and to see if you’ve evolved, if you’ve changed, if you’ve grown, if you’ve done the things you said you were going to do at the time. So I’d lie to you if I said I didn’t have [the opponent] in my mind a little bit.... Both teams are gonna go out and try to win. And we’re gonna do our best to make sure it’s us.”
L.A. won both regular-season games against Connecticut (10-12), but that doesn’t matter now. The Sun harshly ended the Sparks’ championship aspirations a year ago, and now L.A. gets the chance to make amends, and take a step towards that goal once more.
They probably wouldn’t want it any other way.