You could call it deja vu.
The Western Conference playoff field is identical to last year's — Minnesota has clinched first place, the Sparks have finished second, Phoenix has come in third and Seattle is fourth.
But Candace Parker was quick to point out what she thinks are the biggest differences between this year and last year, when the Sparks advanced past the Mercury in the first round but were swept out of the playoffs in the Western Conference finals by the Lynx.
"I think we're smarter, we're more talented, and we're hungrier," Parker said.
The Sparks drove home that point with an 85-84 win over the Lynx on Thursday at Staples Center, the team's third consecutive home win against the top-seeded team this season.
"This is a statement game for the playoffs," Kristi Toliver said. "We want to remind Minnesota that they can't beat us here. So hopefully when we see them in the Conference finals, we'll have that on our backs."
Sure, Toliver is getting a bit ahead of herself, considering the regular season hasn't ended yet, but it's clear that the Sparks have their sights set on making a bigger impact in the playoffs this time around.
The Sparks have not won a championship since winning titles in 2001 and 2002, and they have not advanced beyond the Western Conference finals since 2003.
In Thursday's game, which had a playoff-like intensity, the Lynx went on a 10-2 run at the top of the fourth quarter to tie the score at 61 with 7 minutes 39 seconds left. Nneka Ogwumike responded with 10 points and five rebounds in the fourth quarter, finishing with a game-high 25 points and 11 rebounds, to help the Sparks win their second game in row.
The Sparks pulled off the victory despite losing Parker, who argued her way to an ejection on what she perceived as a non-call early in the third quarter.
Parker finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. Toliver added 19 points, four rebounds and four assists.
"Every possession mattered and it was good to see our team move forward in adversity without Candace," Coach Carol Ross said.
The Sparks, who went on quite a tear in August, winning nine of 10 games to close the month, had slipped recently, losing two of their last three games heading into Thursday's game.
Ross stressed the importance of carrying the Sparks' momentum into their final game of the season, Sunday against Phoenix.
"You just want to finish strong," Ross said. "You want to slam the door on the regular season emphatically."
The WNBA on Thursday announced the schedule for the first round of the playoffs.
Game 1 of the best-of-three series between the Sparks and Phoenix will be in L.A. on Sept. 19 at 7 p.m. It will be shown on ESPN2. Game 2 will be at Phoenix on Sept. 21 at 7 p.m., on NBA TV.
And Game 3, if necessary, will be in L.A. on Sept. 23 at 7 p.m., on ESPN2.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun