Members of the Los Angeles Sparks said Tuesday that they are working on issues that have propelled them to the bottom of the Western Conference standings, and that they are pleased with the team's progress so far.
The Sparks picked up only their fifth victory of the season in beating the Seattle Storm, and stepped out of last place in the West in the process. What was even more encouraging for coaches and players alike was the perseverance the team showed in winning.
"I loved how we won," Los Angeles coach Carol Ross said. "We were resilient, tough, and battled through fatigue. We finished all the way to the end and kept a positive attitude until the end. We never doubted we would win it."
The Sparks demonstrated the same play last week in defeating the visiting Tulsa Shock. It was a noticeable difference for a team that has been known to lose momentum during games, and have lackluster showings on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court.
"This game we were able to correct our problems, and make plays down the stretch and do what works for us," All-Star forward Candace Parker said.
Parker revealed that the Sparks are finally facing issues that have plagued them since last season - and they're doing so early in the year.
"Last year we weren't able to face the problems because we were winning," she said. "We had these same problems last year, but they didn't catch up to us until the playoffs. I think now, you have to correct the problems and look at that because you're losing."
Specifically, Parker said the Sparks have stumbled in closing out games.
"(The problem has been) our end-of-the-game execution, both on the defensive end - when you need a stop, getting a stop - and on the offensive end, when you need a score getting a score," Parker said. "We need to get better at that."
"Last year we were escaping with wins, if you remember. We were getting lucky, and we thought that would carry over into the playoffs, and it didn't."
Parker said the Storm win was a good sign.
"Though we won this game it's not the playoffs, and that will be the telltale sign is if we can get the stops and make the plays down the stretch. I know we're headed in the right direction," she said.
Los Angeles has also suffered this year because of missing personnel. Guard Candice Wiggins is out for about a month after meniscus surgery, and sharp-shooter Kristi Toliver has been in Slovakia for three weeks playing for the Slovak National Team.
The departure of Toliver, who became a naturalized citizen of Slovakia last month, seemed to catch the Sparks by surprise. Though the qualifying tournament for a European National Championship ends today, there also seems to be uncertainty about Toliver's return to Los Angeles.
During Tuesday's game against Staples Center, a marquee advertisement during a timeout said Toliver would be back and playing with the Sparks July 3 in Seattle. In post-game interviews, Ross didn't seem to know this.
"Sounds good to me!" she said, when told about the ad.
Ross also implied that Toliver's tryouts overseas came as a shock to the Sparks.
"When I see her. I don't know whether I'll kick her in the butt or hug her, but she'll get a response one way or the other," Ross said with a laugh.
Parker said that though it's not a full explanation of the team's struggles, that her missing teammates have been a factor.
"We're not complete yet, and we can't use that as an excuse, because I think we could have been winning more despite that we're not complete yet," she said.
The absence of Toliver and the ups and downs of others have made for changes in the Sparks' starting line up. Armintie Herrington was inserted for Toliver. Last week Jantel Lavender replaced struggling point guard Lindsey Harding, who is averaging 7.1 points per game this season - down from her usual 10.
Ross said she is pleased with the changes.
"As long as we're coming out of the gates ready to go, that's what being a starter means. It's a responsibility - not some title someone gives you," Ross said. "As long as they're starting the game the way I want them to, we'll ride with it. If at any time they don't, we'll find somebody else who can crank it up from the get-go."
Forward Nneka Ogwumike, like Lavender, has been putting up points and grabbing rebounds since the line up change. She said the new starting five seems to be working for the Sparks.
"The chemistry is coming one game at a time, and we want to be able to win while learning," Ogwumike said. "Granted since we've got this new chemistry we've won maybe a game or two, but gradually I think we're going to gain back our momemtum."
Ogwumike also alluded to the outcry among Sparks fans, who expected a deep team to be at the top of their conference this season.
"We're staying positive," she said. "You can't feed into the negativity of any situation. Our true identity of our team is shown now, through these adverse times. It's easy for everyone to be happy and not talk about the negatives when you're winning."
"A lot of times there are negatives even when you are winning. So for us to go through this early, it's going to provide the connectivity that we have to maintain."
Parker said no one on the team has given up, and that they'll continue to make improvements.
"We're working on it in practice, doing game situations," she said. "But there will be no test until the test. We're right there, despite all these things. I think once we're able to get complete again, going into July, you kind of want to be headed in the right direction and keep moving."
The way Parker sees it, there's an advantage to facing adversity early in the season.
"We peaked real early last year - real early. We're definitely nowhere near peaking right now," she said.