Sparks still in playoff hunt, Tina Thompson leading the way

Tina Thompson’s 33 points and 50 percent-plus shooting were not enough to lift Los Angeles as they dropped a close game to Phoenix last night. The Mercury beat the Sparks 90-84 in front of a crowd of 8,817 at the Staples Center.

With the losses of two other Western Conference rivals, San Antonio and Minnesota on Tuesday, Los Angeles remains in a three-way tie with those teams for third place. The fourth playoff slot will be decided Friday when all three teams play.

Kara Braxton and Penny Taylor lead the Mercury with 16 and 15 points, respectively. The victory snapped Phoenix’s four-game losing streak and secured their second-place finish in the Western Conference behind the Seattle Storm.

The game got off to a quick start, with both teams trading baskets until the last few minutes of the first quarter, when the Mercury went on a run. Reserve point guard Ketia Swanier lit a fire under her team. It was her drive up the court and dish to DeWanna Bonner, who drained a long three and was fouled with 1.1 seconds to go, that put Phoenix up 25-15 at the end of the period.

After falling behind by as much as 16 in the second quarter, the Sparks ignited under Thompson, who hit back-to-back shots to close the gap 32-36 by the 4:06 mark. Braxton and Tangela Smith scored for the Mercury while Thompson kept up her shooting assault and Phoenix led 49-40 at the half.

Los Angeles began the third quarter on a 14-4 run and took the lead by one at the 4:19 mark. Thompson and Marie Ferdinand-Harris battled with Braxton on the scoring end, but the Sparks trailed by three at the end of the period.

The final push for the home team came at the 2:20 mark, when a Thompson layup brought the Sparks within two, 80-82. But with 29 seconds to go, Phoenix forward Candice Dupree blocked Ferdinand-Harris’ jump shot, got the rebound and was fouled. Her free throws put the Mercury up 87-82, a margin from which the Sparks could not recover.

Los Angeles and Phoenix have matched up closely all season long, with three of their games being decided by a point, and the other two by nine points or less. The Mercury’s Smith said both teams rise to the occasion when they play each other.

“Both teams match up really well and there are so many competitive players on both sides,” said Smith. “It’s starting to be a real rivalry between the two teams. Both teams really want to win.”

Thompson is leading the Sparks in scoring with 16.2 points per game, up from 13 last year. She ranks 12th in the league in scoring, and the 35-year-old was named Western Conference Player of the Week on Monday. She said that her role on the team changed dramatically two months ago, when Candace Parker and Betty Lennox were lost for the season to injuries.

“When Candace was playing, everything for us was inside out, but with her gone that changed,” said Thompson. “We have all found new roles. Players are playing other positions, and everyone’s matured in learning that when [injuries] happen, you’re either going to falter or you’re going to grow up.”

Besides Thompson, Ferdinand-Harris and DeLisha Milton Jones have also stepped up and become the team’s fourth and second-leading scorers, respectively. Thompson said they all realized what they needed to do after their teammates were lost for the season.

“The expectations are that there are limited slices of the pie, and that not all the slices will be of the same size,” she said. “With the absence of key players, the remainder of us gets a bigger piece of the pie.”

The Western Conference playoff picture could be decided as late as Sunday, when regular season play wraps up.

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