Los Angeles — It's playoff time in the WNBA, and the Los Angeles Sparks say that's when they become a different team. Not the one that struggled down the stretch, but the defending league champions who expect to repeat.
The Sparks won their third consecutive Western Conference title, but it took them all 32 regular-season games to do it.
They didn't earn the West's No. 1 seed until beating Phoenix, 63-56, Tuesday night. Los Angeles finished one game ahead of Houston in the standings, and owns the league's best record of 25-7.
"We were expected to win it outright without so many problems down the stretch," guard Tamecka Dixon said Wednesday. "Nevertheless, we got the job done and still ended up being first in the West."
The Sparks open the playoffs today at No. 4 Seattle (17-5). In the East, No. 2 Charlotte, which was swept by the Sparks in last year's title series, opens at third-seeded Washington.
The best-of-three first-round continues Friday, when No. 2 Houston visits third-seeded Utah, and the New York Liberty, the East's top seed, plays fourth-seeded Indiana.
No East team has ever won the league title. Houston won the first four titles, while the Sparks did so last year.
Getting to the playoffs was a struggle for the Sparks.
Their 28-game winning streak at Staples Center was snapped by Houston on June 30; recently they lost consecutive games for the first time this season; and Houston beat them again at Staples a week ago.
The Sparks are led by Lisa Leslie, most valuable player of the All-Star game, with 16.9 points and 10.4 rebounds. Leslie, Dixon and Mwadi Mabika have played together for six years, giving the Sparks one of the most experienced trios in the league.
While the rest of the league might see the Sparks as being vulnerable, the team doesn't.
"Did you sense any vulnerability in the Lakers? Sacramento took them to the end and they won it all," Dixon said of the three-time NBA champions. "When it comes down to it and the pressure's on, can you beat us?"
Seattle did, twice in three games this season. On July 11 in Seattle, the Storm won 79-60, handing the Sparks their worst defeat.
The Storm is in the playoffs for the first time, behind the inside-outside combination of Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird. Jackson, the 6-foot-5 Australian, averages 17.4 points and 6.7 rebounds. Bird averages 14.8 points and 6.1 assists.
"We know it's going to be tough in their house," Dixon said. "Coach (Lin) Dunn thinks she has all the answers."
The Storm won again, 81-76, two weeks ago at Staples.