Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury looking for winning touch

We're about a month into the WNBA season. And Phoenix, the team we picked to win the championship, just ended a three-game losing streak Sunday to move to 3-5. The Mercury are closer to the bottom of the WNBA standings than the top.

But we knew Phoenix likely would be playing the long game this season, with Diana Taurasi still out after back surgery. Projecting Phoenix to win it all was based on how we think the Mercury will be playing by the postseason.

At this point, Phoenix is still trying to figure things out. Maybe some of that happened with the Mercury's 82-72 victory Sunday over Los Angeles. The Sparks, meanwhile, are 4-6 and seem to have more problems than the Mercury.

Connecticut -- despite its loss Sunday to upwardly trending Chicago -- and Washington are the biggest buzz in the WNBA right now; the Sun and Mystics meet Saturday (ESPN, 2 p.m. ET). But some of the biggest questions around the league surround two franchises that each have won three titles: Phoenix and Los Angeles.

Both started the season without injured stars. Taurasi is close to returning, while Candace Parker (hamstring) came back last week. But it might take a few more games before she's back at her standard, or something near that, again.

In Parker's season debut last Tuesday in Los Angeles, Washington's effortless-looking chemistry stood in contrast to the Sparks' disarray. Parker had three points in an 81-52 defeat, and then scored two in a subsequent 84-62 loss at Seattle on Friday, going 1-of-9 from the field in both games.

Sunday against the Mercury, she looked more like herself, finishing with 12 points and 11 rebounds, but was still 3-of-10 from the field. Parker's rustiness is understandable, and seems likely to remedy itself over the next few games. But will that fix things for the Sparks?

That's a more complicated question, because Los Angeles has had a lot of issues during this four-game skid. The Sparks' defense is one clear trouble area. New coach Derek Fisher has said all along his emphasis on greater individual defensive responsibility was going to take time for the Sparks to adjust to. They also didn't have defensive stalwart Alana Beard (leg injury) for seven games; she returned Friday against the Storm.

Still, the Sparks have to cringe at their defense the past week, starting with a 98-92 loss at home to New York in which they couldn't stop the Liberty on the block (center Amanda Zahui B had 37 points) or on penetration (guard Kia Nurse scored 26, 15 on free throws). The Sparks at least kept pace offensively with the Liberty, which wasn't the case against the Mystics or Storm.

Theoretically, Los Angeles could have good chemistry this season, once Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike fully readjust to playing together, Parker rounds into form, Maria Vadeeva returns from Europe, and the guard corps solidifies. And once the Sparks really get used to Fisher, and vice versa.

"He has a lot of experience that we're learning a lot of about," Nneka Ogwumike said. "It's basketball, but he's coming from a different world, and he's kind of entered into our world. And now we're just trying to find the space that we coexist.

"I think that he's learning from us, and ultimately, it's going to be really great when we really figure out that cohesiveness."

But a lot is on the shoulders of point guard Chelsea Gray, who has the ability and experience to make this work. That doesn't mean it will be easy, or that the Sparks don't have more rough patches ahead of them. They will try to get back on track at home this week, as they host Las Vegas on Thursday and Chicago on Sunday.

Speaking of point guards, the Mercury had veteran Leilani Mitchell back in a starting role Sunday, and that made a difference. She led Phoenix with 22 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Mitchell was cut for salary-cap reasons to begin the season, then was re-signed. She has played six of Phoenix's eight games, but Sunday's was her best thus far in 2019.

"She controlled the tempo of the game," Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said of Mitchell. "She understands everything I want to run. I just said, 'Lead the team.'"

With the Mercury dealing with injuries and a bench with youth that's not producing much yet, Brondello has been dealing with some obvious frustrations. But there's some time to both heal further and practice more this week, as the Mercury don't play until hosting Indiana on Friday. Taurasi might be back by then, but Phoenix also needs the kind of effort shown Sunday to be present all the time.

"We have to build on that. Let's be happy, but we're still 3-5," Brondello said. "We have to make sure we get some consistency back, but that was a great start. If we can keep doing that, we will be OK."
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