The Los Angeles Sparks try to complete a cross-country sweep of the top two teams in the WNBA on Tuesday night when they look to snap the Washington Mystics' seven-game home winning streak.
The Sparks (18-10) are percentage points ahead of Las Vegas and in a three-way fight with the Ace and Chicago for third and fourth - spots that carry a bye into the second round of the playoffs. They still have a chance at claiming first or second and receiving a bye into the semifinals.
Los Angeles pulled within 1 1/2 games of Connecticut for second place before making this cross-country trek, beating the Sun 84-72 on Sunday. Riquna Williams scored 21 points to lead four starters in double figures, and Nneka Ogwumike added 16 and 12 rebounds in a bruising duel with Sun center and fellow MVP candidate Jonquel Jones.
"It was definitely a playoff atmosphere," Candace Parker told the Los Angeles Times. "Nneka did a great job. It's tough to go against (Jones') length, but she was able to attack her."
Parker finished with 13 points and five assists while moving into fifth on the league's all-time list in the latter category with 1,208, ahead of Vickie Johnson. The challenge for the Sparks is to carry their play at home - Los Angeles has won 11 straight there - to the road, where they have dropped three of their last four.
That will not be easy against a Mystics team firing on all cylinders offensively at home, where they have averaged 97.1 points during a seven-game winning streak. Washington regained the inside track for the top seed in the playoffs thanks to the Sparks' win and a 101-72 throttling of New York on Sunday.
Elena Delle Donne furthered her own MVP cause with 22 points and 10 rebounds, leading the Mystics over the 100-point mark for the fifth time this year as they emphatically bounced back from a loss at playoff-bound Chicago.
"We want that No. 1 seed. We have to kind of win out now because Connecticut has our tiebreaker, so it's on everyone's mind," forward Aerial Powers told The Washington Post. "As you can see today, we kind of played with that aggressiveness. ... In Chicago, our aggressive level wasn't as high as usual. So we definitely wanted to come in today and push some people around, get our little growl back before Tuesday.
"It's going to be really important because come playoffs, you're maybe not getting those easy calls you would get. You have to really fight for every possession."
The Sparks have only been at full strength this year the last two games due to a spate of injuries and a 10-game suspension for Williams following the league's investigation into a domestic abuse allegation. After re-acclimating herself in Los Angeles' rout of Indiana, Williams hit five 3-pointers and was 7 of 12 from the field versus Connecticut.
Washington will be without a key member of its backcourt as Kristi Toliver will miss her seventh straight game with a bone bruise of her right knee, and it seems more and more likely she will be sidelined until the playoffs.
"I hate not having Panda on the court," Delle Donne said. "But we're using it as a learning tool right now. We're trying to just be patient, learn and not do too much and just play our roles. Obviously, we can't wait for her to get back, but the most important thing is that she's healthy and feeling good for the playoffs. You can tell it's absolutely killing her to be sitting like this."