Though they might publicly suggest otherwise, it's hard to imagine members of the Sparks really envisioned making the playoffs after losing their first seven games of the season, or when their record stood at 3-14.
But the Sparks did make the playoffs, where they'll face off against the top-seeded team in the Western Conference, the Minnesota Lynx, in a best-of-three series beginning Friday night.
The team's turnaround — they won 11 of their final 17 contests — can be attributed primarily to the return of two players: Candace Parker and Alana Beard.
Parker sat out the first 17 games of the WNBA season because, at 29 years old, constantly switching between domestic and international leagues, she was exhausted.
"I just knew for me to be at my top game, I needed the rest," the two-time most valuable player said. "Physically, mentally, I had been playing year-round for six, seven years."
That rest seems to have paid off for both Parker and the Sparks. In 16 appearances, she led the team in points per game (19.4), rebounds (10.1), assists (6.3), and steals.
"She's been extremely influential in what's happened since she's been back," Coach Brian Agler said. "It's not just ironic that this happened. She really impacted this situation with her play."
Beard, meanwhile, battled plantar fasciitis that limited her to 14 games, mostly during the second half of the team's playoff push. At 33 years old, she's no longer at the same level that made her a four-time All-Star, but her veteran presence, coupled with the steady play of Nneka Ogwumike (16.5 points, 7.3 rebounds), Jantel Lavender, and Kristi Toliver was enough to salvage what looked like a lost season. Parker believes the slow start and solid finish could actually aid them in the postseason.
"In years past, we've kind of peaked too soon and were not playing very well going into the playoffs," Parker said. "I think this year is definitely the opposite."
The Sparks are the only team left with a losing record overall (14-20), but Agler believes this is the most wide-open WNBA race in recent memory, thanks to a series of unusual circumstances.
"There are teams that have better records than others, but injuries have plagued teams this year, late arrivals have plagued teams, there's been trades that have impacted both the Eastern and Western Conferences," Agler said. "So in the end, it's very balanced in regards to how the teams are playing at the moment. It could be an extremely competitive and interesting playoffs."
That being said, the Sparks won't be discounting their first-round opponents in the Lynx, who went 22-12 despite a brutal run of injuries to some of their own most important players. Guards Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus missed chunks of August and September, but they are expected to return Friday, according to the Star Tribune in Minnesota.
"We treat them as a team that's really good and has the best record in the conference," Ogwumike said. "You can't just expect that no one is going to play. We expect that everyone is going to play, so that's how we prepare for the team."
The Lynx have one of the most talented starting fives in the WNBA, anchored by the aforementioned backcourt, plus Rebekkah Brunson, midseason acquisition Sylvia Fowles, and All-Star Maya Moore. Moore was the runner-up for the MVP award after putting up 20.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 3.5 assists a game.
"You have to stay in her space," Agler said of the talented Minnesota forward. "You have to be with her on every catch. She's an extremely smart basketball player with and without the basketball, but what makes her difficult to defend is she has a lot of really good players around her too, so you just can't put your total focus on her."
Now that they're finally healthy, the wild card for the Sparks might be their first-year coach, who won a title with the Seattle Storm in 2010. Parker is confident her teammates have bought in to what Agler can contribute.
"He's won a WNBA championship, and I think it's just about trust and being on the same page," Parker said. "I think we are. He's very knowledgeable about the game. We trust him and we trust each other, and that's the key."