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SPARKS

Sparks are playoff bound after beating San Antonio, 76-68

Lisa Leslie, who scored a team-high 18 points, puts in perspective by saying that while it's nice to reach the postseason, winning the title is still the goal.

September 09, 2009|Mark Medina

Once the game ended, a sense of relief permeated the arena.

Sparks Coach Michael Cooper ran up to hug General Manager Penny Toler and discussed what he called a "friendly GM-head coach thing."

Center Lisa Leslie hugged forward Candace Parker before making her way to her daughter, Lauren, and husband, Michael Lockwood. Forward Tina Thompson did the same with her son, Dyllan.

The Sparks' 76-68 victory over the San Antonio Silver Stars on Tuesday in front of a crowd of 10,476 at Staples Center created a festive mood for good reason. The Sparks' victory ensured a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Leslie quickly put things in perspective.

"It's really crazy that there is a congratulations with making the playoffs and winning games," said Leslie, who had a team-high 18 points on seven-for-12 shooting. "I understand we could've not made it. I'm just not used to being in that position."

The Sparks (16-16) have won two WNBA championships and were predicted to win another this season, according to a preseason survey of league general managers. Instead, the Sparks sputtered and had an 8-13 record by mid-August before winning seven of their last eight that month.

With the loss, the Silver Stars (14-18) are two games behind for the third playoff spot, while the Minnesota Lynx are eliminated from postseason contention.

The job is not over, though. If the regular season ended today, the Sparks would be seeded third and play the second-seeded Seattle Storm, which split its season series with the Sparks. If they finish fourth, the Sparks would face the Phoenix Mercury in the first round.

"We don't really want to match up with them in the first round," said Leslie of the Mercury, to whom the Sparks lost three times this season. ". . . Not that Seattle is any easier, but I think we match up better with them."

On Tuesday, the Sparks made the first step in ensuring a third seeding by opening and closing out the third quarter with eight unanswered points.

"That's been our Achilles' heel this year, coming out flat in the third quarter," said Noelle Quinn, who scored 15 points. "Everybody really focused on the defensive end. We played well together and that got us easier buckets on offense."

That energy will work in their favor going forward. "Our job is not done," Cooper said. "We want to continue the winning streak and go all the way out."

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mark.medina@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesmedina

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