Confident Sparks eager to get back on track after rare loss

— -- There are two very different kinds of shrugs that athletes can give when asked about how their season is unfolding. One is a shrug of frustration, a gesture that says there's no satisfying explanation for what's gone wrong.

The other, though, is a happy shrug that says, "There's really no magic formula for why we're playing very well. We're just executing."

We all know the Los Angeles Sparks have had more than a few seasons of unpleasant shrugging, where they couldn't pinpoint exactly why a team that clearly had talent was inconsistent or sometimes even floundered.

Now, though, any shrugs the Sparks might give are accompanied by smiles. They can detail all the reasons things have gone so well in what's been a 20-2 season thus far. But it's ultimately more a mindset that has taken hold -- one that is not defined as much by the specific things the Sparks are doing well, but the general sense that they now expect them.

As they close out the pre-Olympics part of the season this week -- with games Tuesday at Indiana (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET) and at Washington on Friday -- the Sparks sound confident that they'll have a strong finish now and then be able to pick up where they left off when the season resumes in late August after a monthlong break for the Summer Games.

"I think that what separates us this year as opposed to other years," said Sparks guard Kristi Toliver, "is that we've always had the talent, but I think everybody's been willing to sacrifice a little bit of themselves. When you do that, great things happen. And that's just been the case this season. We just have a really good team, and we know how to play the game."

Yes, the Sparks on Sunday dealt with one of their rare disappointments this year when they fell 91-74 at Atlanta. Had Los Angeles won, a 21-1 mark would have been the best start for a WNBA season. Instead, the Sparks share that distinction with the now-defunct Houston Comets at 20-2.

How upsetting was that loss? Guard Alana Beard said the Sparks really put no emphasis on the record. And that while it was tough to lose a game, Los Angeles wasn't overly concerned about it from a historical context.

"It was never a focus of ours," Beard said. "The record means nothing if you don't have a championship at the end."

Toliver echoed that, saying that the Dream seemed more motivated to prevent L.A. from getting the mark than the Sparks were motivated to set it. When it was over, though, Toliver did acknowledge feeling worse about it than she probably expected to.

"I think it's unfortunate that we were not able to capitalize on such a special opportunity," Toliver said. "But in the big picture, we have a lot of work to do, and we know we have to get better. If it takes that kind of sting to really make changes, then I think ultimately it will be worth it."

She's speaking sort of rhetorically, though. Because there really aren't many big changes that need to be made for a team that remains the pacesetter for the WNBA. The Sparks are averaging 85.7 points, which is third-best in the league. And they are holding their opponents to 75.1 points, which is best in the WNBA.

Forward Nneka Ogwumike is on the short list of league MVP candidates, averaging 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds, while shooting a WNBA-best 71.4 percent from the field. Candace Parker is also having a very big season, averaging 16.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists.

Did not being chosen for the U.S. Olympic team give Ogwumike and Parker a little extra motivation this season? It almost certainly has, but that isn't a bad thing. Neither player is dwelling on it, but can use it as an understandable bit of fuel.

Toliver is the Sparks' third-leading scorer at 14.1, and she's shooting 45 percent from 3-point range. And in his second season in L.A., Brian Agler has a full buy-in from his team. Again, that has not always been the case with the Sparks and their coaches.

But it is now, and the Spark have no intention of letting any of that slide.

"We have a mature team, and they understand what it's going to take on both ends of the floor," Toliver said. "I think Coach has done a really good job of preaching the 'little things' to us. We attack each day with just wanting to get better. We don't take wins for granted; we know how hard it is to get them in this league."