The Los Angeles Sparks appear to be the team that will present the biggest challenge to the Minnesota Lynx's quest to repeat as WNBA champions.
Los Angeles, though, cannot afford to look past a first-round matchup with a San Antonio Silver Stars club that gave it fits during the regular season.The second-seeded Sparks have home-court advantage in this best-of-three Western Conference semifinal series against San Antonio, but Game 1 on Thursday night will not be played on the court Los Angeles went 16-1 on this season.Due to "Batman Live" taking place at Staples Center, this game will be played at USC Galen Center. The Sparks' only loss at Staples this season was 91-71 to San Antonio on June 24.Los Angeles (24-10) had its best season in six years and boasts a starting lineup with five double-figure scorers that account for more than 80 percent of the team's points.The Sparks are led by Candace Parker, who played a full season for the first time since she was a rookie in 2008, and Kristi Toliver, who is a strong candidate for the league's Most Improved Player award. Nneka Ogwumike, this year's No. 1 overall pick draft, also provides a strong defensive presence to complement Parker.Toliver led Los Angeles with 17.5 points and 4.9 assists per game, Parker averaged 17.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists and a league-best 2.3 blocks, and Ogwumike topped all rookies with 14.0 points and 7.5 rebounds a game."This is what we're supposed to do. We haven't done anything yet," Parker said. "At Tennessee, making the NCAA tournament or making it to the Final Four was not enough. We were disappointed at the end of the season if we lost. That's the mentality we're bringing to this organization again."The Silver Stars (21-13) won three of four against the Sparks this season, though their victories all came in a two-week stretch in June. Los Angeles posted a 101-77 victory at home Aug. 23, ending the Silver Stars' franchise-record 12-game winning streak, and closed the season with five wins in six games."The last few weeks they've been peaking at the right time," San Antonio veteran guard Becky Hammon said. "We just want to come in, focused and be who we are. Defensively we've got to be on our toes with them. They have so many great 1-on-1 players, so it's going to take a team effort for us."San Antonio's season was highlighted by a 15-2 stretch midway through that included the 12-game win streak. The Silver Stars were inconsistent before and after that run, though, and lost seven of their last 11.Now, they'll have to turn things around if they want to get past Los Angeles and advance in the postseason for the first time since reaching the WNBA finals in 2008."During that stretch when we had 12 in a row we were firing on all cylinders, and that's where we want to be," said Hammon, whose 14.7 points per game were second on the team to Sophia Young's 16.3.Game 2 will be Saturday at the Freeman Coliseum in San Antonio because of a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert at the AT&T Center, where the Silver Stars went 12-5 this season.Game 3, if necessary, is scheduled to take place Monday night at Staples Center.