Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Sparks Reignite Their Flame
By Evan BarnesSentinel Sports EditorÂ After the Sparks lost 85-79 at home to Sacramento on Aug. 14, a visibly frustrated Michael Cooper criticized the team's lack of execution and defensive intensity - two bad habits that have plagued their season."I don't know any more I can do," Cooper said at the time, "It's on the players now."Since that game, the team responded to their coach's challenge by playing their best basketball of the season. Heading into tonight's game against Phoenix, they've won six straight to reach over .500 for the first time since winning their season opener.More importantly, they went from being in danger of missing the playoffs to sitting in third place in the Western Conference with a slim lead over San Antonio.Leading the way has been Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker, who was named Western Conference Player of the Week after averaging 16.0 points and 10.5 rebounds last week.Leslie has had four games of 20 points or more this month, including a season-high of 28 against Minnesota where she went 13-15 from the field. When she was hampered with foul trouble in the team's 91-87 win, Parker picked up the slack with a season-high 23 points.Despite missing a month of the season on maternity leave, she is leading the league in doubles-doubles and blocks per game while sitting in second for rebounds per game. After the team's win against Atlanta on Sunday, she said that she's about "80-85%" as far as her strength goes.Her play signified that the team - after injuries to Leslie and Betty Lennox - is finally starting to resemble the dominant one many expected at the start of the year."I feel like we have all the pieces now," Parker said. "We've all got a couple of games under our belt and we are playing together"Two weeks from returning after a knee injury, Lennox had her best game in nearly a month with 14 points and eight rebounds against her former team.Outside of Parker, no player has been more valuable this month than Noelle Quinn. The former UCLA product has scored in double figures in all but two games as the team's most consistent contributor off the bench.Although the team has lost twice to Phoenix, the league's best team, neither game saw the team at full strength. The last meeting, a 104-89 loss on July 6 at Staples Center, was notable for Parker's first game since giving birth to her daughter Lailaa.Tonight's game will be the measuring stick they need to see how far they've come from rock bottom two weeks ago.