LA Sparks open WBNA title defense in starry semifinal

LOS ANGELES — Candace Parker and the Los Angeles Sparks have a chance to do something that hasn't been done in 15 years: Win back-to-back WNBA titles.

Only the Sparks aren't thinking repeat.

They're focused on winning a title, almost as if last year's championship against Minnesota didn't happen.

"It's a new recipe every year to win a championship," Parker said Monday after practice. "The same thing isn't going to work as it did last year, but I like our preparation and I like our experience."

The Sparks ended the regular season on a seven-game winning streak. They've been off for eight days, resting and practicing while waiting to find out their opponent in the best-of-five semifinals. The Phoenix Mercury had to win elimination games against Seattle and Connecticut to advance.

Game 1 is Tuesday night at Staples Center.

"We'll find out if it's rest or rust," Parker joked.

She long ago succeeded Lisa Leslie as the face of the Sparks franchise. Leslie led Los Angeles to the league's last back-to-back titles in 2001 and '02. Having won everything else in the game, Parker finally added a WNBA title last year. At 31, she's learned you don't always get another chance.

"When you have the opportunity, you seize it," she said.

The Sparks (26-8) did just that in the regular season, sweeping the Mercury (18-16) in three games. The Sparks won by an average of 16 points, although the first game was decided by two.

"They're a dangerous team," Sparks coach Brian Agler said. "They probably have more new players than we even do and our roster is half changed from a year ago. They've steadily gotten better."

The Mercury hasn't been to the WNBA finals since winning their third title in 2014.

The teams will be playing for the fifth time in the postseason, with Phoenix winning three of the four previous meetings. The Sparks' last series win over the Mercury was in 2000, long before any of the current players were in the league.

The series features four of the league's biggest stars: former MVPs Parker, teammate Nneka Ogwumike and Phoenix's Diana Taurasi, and two-time defensive player of the year Brittney Griner. The quartet is among the league's top 11 scorers.

Griner topped the league in scoring with a 21.9-point average during a season in which she emerged offensively. Taurasi remains the Mercury's go-to player in crunch time.

"We can't just isolate those two," Ogwumike said. "We have to focus on them, but we still have to be able to understand that stopping small things is just as important as stopping big hitters like Brittney and Diana."

The Sparks on Monday announced a multi-year contract extension for Agler, a former Phoenix assistant.

"He hasn't just brought wins and a championship, he's brought a whole other type of culture," Ogwumike said. "We play with a purpose. We're very cohesive and accountable."

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