Sparks clinch playoff berth, eye bigger prize

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LOS ANGELES -- It's safe to say it now in the Los Angeles locker room: playoffs.

The Sparks completed their arduous uphill climb from having the worst record in the WNBA to becoming a postseason team on Sunday with a 92-73 win over Tulsa at the Staples Center.

Los Angeles may be the hottest team in the WNBA in the second half of the season, putting up an 11-4 record to go from barely breathing -- their record was 3-14 on July 29 -- to championship contender, even with a 14-18 record.

It didn't take a math whiz to figure out that Los Angeles -- with Candace Parker returning to the lineup after sitting out the first half of the season to rest -- was going to need an impressive run down the stretch to return to the postseason for the fourth straight season and the seventh time in the last eight years. But the Sparks pulled it off, and the locker room was suffused with an unmistakable vibe of satisfaction after Sunday's game.

"I sat everybody down right after the All-Star break and told them I thought we needed to get to 15 wins," Sparks coach Brian Agler said. "We got to 14, and that was enough, but [we] knew it was going to be tough. I'm extremely proud of this team. I feel like this team can accomplish anything."

Veteran guard Alana Beard said she never doubted that the Sparks -- who are in fourth place, 2½ games behind third-place Tulsa -- were capable of a playoff run.

"Even when we were 3-14, I was still an adamant believer in this team because I know how hard we work and how we prepared for this season," Beard said. "I knew when the pieces came together, things would start to turn in our favor. Our mindset all along has been, 'We want it.' And now we can talk about it."

The Sparks' 11-4 run since the All-Star break has included four road wins and seven victories over playoff-bound teams.

"We know we are a playoff-caliber team," guard Kristi Toliver said.

It certainly doesn't hurt to have Parker playing some of the best basketball of her entire career.

The Sparks handily finished off a Tulsa team that came into Sunday with six straight wins. Parker finished the game with a season-high 33 points to go with eight rebounds and five assists. She buried five of Los Angeles' six 3-pointers in the game.

Parker is averaging 22.2 points per game over the past nine games. Los Angeles is 7-2 over that stretch.

Nneka Ogwumike contributed 26 points and nine rebounds in her second game back after missing six in a row while recovering from a concussion. Jantel Lavender added 10 points and nine rebounds.

"I feel like we are contenders to win the whole thing," Ogwumike said. "We really haven't been feeling any pressure. After what we've dealt with, I can't imagine anyone is really feeling that. We are just trying to win the next game."

It has doubtlessly been a trying season for the Sparks. Parker's sabbatical was only the start of issues that persisted all summer. The team has been beset by injuries, keeping players out of 57 total games heading into Sunday's matchup with the Shock.

But the Sparks accomplished what they set out to do a little more than a month ago, reversing course on their lost season. Parker has been in Los Angeles longer than anyone on the roster, and she has a long memory for all the times the Sparks have fallen short. Sunday's good feelings are fine for now.

"I think we can play better," Parker said. "Everybody is feeling good, but I still think the best basketball is ahead of us. This team has been through a lot, but that doesn't guarantee that we deserve anything.

"Every opportunity to make the playoffs is a new opportunity, and you have to make the most of it. I've been saying that for eight years."

Los Angeles has two road games left on the schedule and Agler indicated he will likely rest his starters -- though that plan could change if Tulsa stumbles and puts L.A. in a position to claim the Western Conference's No. 3 playoff spot. The Sparks would need to win out and Tulsa would need to lose all of its remaining games for that to happen.

Agler said he saw a very focused team on Sunday, one that was not interested in backing into a playoff spot with a Seattle loss.

"We were as focused as we've been all year long," Agler said. "We took advantage of our advantages. We need to keep doing that."