- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 11, 2009

It’s hard to imagine that the first month of the WNBA season could have gone any worse for the Los Angeles Sparks.

With four Olympians on the roster, the Sparks were considered the best team in the league heading into the season, even though reigning MVP Candace Parker was going to miss most of June on maternity leave.

But after a win against defending champion Detroit, the Sparks dropped their next four games - all on the road. And to make things even worse, center Lisa Leslie sprained her knee June 19 and isn’t expected to return until after the All-Star break.

“We have had to regroup,” forward Tina Thompson said. “Our offense and the things that we do are predicated on having certain players being in certain positions. … Even though there’s still a high talent level [without Parker and Leslie], the aspects and characteristics of the games are different.”

Despite their early stumbles, the Sparks haven’t lost their swagger. They have won two of their past three, including their first road win Thursday night. And with Parker back in the lineup, the Sparks feel ready to make a move toward the top of the Western Conference.

“We’re just getting into a rhythm and starting to know each other,” coach Michael Cooper said. “We’re a very good basketball team, but we’ve got a lot of new faces, and the chemistry has to come. With Candace coming back, I thought that’s why we looked a lot better in New York [on Thursday]. Her conditioning is a little down, her timing is a little off, but 50 percent of her is better than 90 percent of a lot of players in this league.”

Saturday’s game against the Mystics at Verizon Center will be Parker’s third game back since giving birth to daughter Lailaa on May 13. The Sparks have been taking it slow with Parker until she is fully acclimated to game conditions - playing her about 10 minutes less in her first two games back this year than her average from last season - but they still feel much more confident with their star in the lineup.

For Parker, just getting back on the court is a huge relief.

“I was very excited that we got our first road win [Thursday] night. We see that we actually are capable of winning on the road,” Parker joked. “But it was just a thrill to get on the court with my teammates and play. Basketball was my first love, and I’m not myself if I’m not playing basketball.”

Knowing they haven’t been at full strength at any point this season, the Sparks have remained even-keeled about their 4-6 record. Cooper credited a lot of that to veterans Thompson and DeLisha Milton-Jones, who have picked up the slack both on the court and in the locker room in Leslie’s absence.

The key for Los Angeles has been never losing the confidence that when healthy, it is still an elite team in the league.

“Even though we’ve had some tough moments, we haven’t gotten down and felt sorry for ourselves,” Thompson said. “None of us like losing, so there’s a certain ‘we need to get this thing going’ attitude. Coming to practice each day, we’re shaking it off and working towards getting better. We feel that it’s coming and it’s right there, and we’re gonna keep on weathering the storm and when we’re at full strength, we’ll definitely be a force to be reckoned with.”

It is reassuring for Cooper that the Sparks are only a half-game out of the Western Conference playoff picture. With the right amount of damage control until the All-Star break, he is confident a huge second half is on the horizon.

“All we have to do is keep this thing close and stay on top of our game,” Cooper said. “And then in August and September, things will be turned around the other way.”

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