A star player getting injured is never a good thing for any team, but in the case of Candace Parker and the Los Angeles Sparks, the veteran's various injuries may end up being a blessing in disguise.
She sat out the first few weeks of the season due to a hamstring injury, and was only able to play seven games before hurting her ankle. That forced her to the sidelines for another three weeks, until she made her return to action last week against the Las Vegas Aces in the Sparks' first game out of the All-Star break.
Parker was phenomenal on that night, finishing with 16 points, seven rebounds, three assists, three steals and four blocks to lead the Sparks to one of their biggest wins of the season. A few days later, she put up 21 points, seven rebounds, two assists and two steals to carry the Sparks past the Storm.
It wasn't just the results that were encouraging, though, it was how she was moving out on the court, where she looked as spry as ever. As a result of her injuries, Parker will probably end playing just over 20 games this season, but has returned in plenty of time to work into a good rhythm heading into the playoffs. The Sparks wouldn't have planned it this way, but it's going to end up being an almost perfect load management situation.
Winners of three straight, and six of their last seven, the Sparks are now 13-8 on the season, and sit in fourth place, just two and a half games out of first. A coveted top-two seed is well within their reach, and they'll have a well-rested Parker leading them in their chase.
1. Connecticut Sun (16-6) -- last week No. 2
No team has been streakier than the Sun this season. They rattled off three more wins this week and have now won seven straight games for the second time in this campaign. Their three-point shooting has started to tick up, but the real key has been their defense, which is back on track after a tough stretch in late June. During their seven-game winning streak, their defensive rating is a stout 88.2.
2. Washington Mystics (14-7) -- last week No. 3
This was a busy week for the Mystics, with three regular games, then the conclusion of their earthquake-interrupted contest with the Aces. And aside from a lackadaisical performance on the road in Phoenix, it went well. They picked up three more wins, and have jumped back ahead of the Aces into second place. With how well they're shooting the ball lately, this team is just really tough to beat.
3. Las Vegas Aces (15-8) -- last week No. 1
This was just a so-so week for the Aces, but it's hard to really take too much away from it considering their opponents and injury situation. They lost a fairly close game to the Sparks on the road, which is going to happen, picked up two wins over the lowly Wings and basically just conceded the second half of their rescheduled contest with the Mystics. Going 2-2 on the week without A'ja Wilson and while finding Liz Cambage some much-needed rest is not bad at all.
4. Los Angeles Sparks (13-8) -- last week No. 5
If this week was a sign of things to come for the Sparks, the rest of the league may be in trouble. Candace Parker is back in action and has looked fantastic, while Maria Vadeeva and Alexis Jones returned as well. With that trio back, they picked up comfortable wins over the Aces and Storm, and have all of a sudden won six out of seven games. A top-two seed is not out of the question.
5. Chicago Sky (12-9) -- last week No. 4
We didn't really learn too much about the Sky during what was a pretty average week for them. They had a tough time on the road against the Sun as expected, and saw their four-game winning streak snapped, but bounced back with a comfortable win over the lowly Dream. This will be a big weekend for them as they hit the road to take on the Aces and Sparks in the span of three days.
6. Phoenix Mercury (11-10) -- last week No. 7
The Mercury's strange season continued this week. They made history in a loss to the Mystics, nearly took down the Sun on the road, then beat the third-place Mystics by 20-plus points for the second time this season. Brittney Griner has continued her strong offensive play, while Leilani Mitchell has stepped up lately to give them some consistent backcourt scoring as they await Diana Taurasi's return.
7. Seattle Storm (12-11) -- last week No. 6
This was a tough week for the Storm. They got crushed by the Aces, then didn't have much better luck in their loss to the Sparks. One thing to watch moving forward for Seattle is the play of Jewell Loyd. The All-Star has struggled since her return from an ankle injury that kept her sidelined for a month. In her first four games back, she's shooting just 6-of-25 from the field, and the Storm have a minus-29.1 net rating when she's been on the court.
8. Indiana Fever (8-15) -- last week No. 10
After showing some improvement, and plenty of competitiveness in the first half of the season, the Fever are finally turning some of those strong performances into wins. They went a perfect 2-0 this week, highlighted bye erasing a 20-point deficit in a comeback win over the Lynx. All of a sudden, the playoffs aren't out of the realm of possibility for this young Fever team, as they sit three games out of eighth.
9. Minnesota Lynx (10-11) -- last week No. 8
After stumbling into the All-Star break, the Lynx looked ready to get back on track in their first game. Instead, they blew a 20-point lead to the Fever for their fourth straight loss, and dropped down into eighth place at 10-11. One bit of good news is that Seimone Augustus is on the verge of making her season debut. She's probable for their Tuesday night game against the Dream, and should help alleviate some of their problems on the offensive end.
10. New York Liberty (8-13) -- last week No. 9
With the Storm and Lynx each on long losing streaks, the door is open for the Liberty to jump into the playoff picture, but so far they haven't been able to capitalize. New York's defense has once again fallen apart, and was a big reason for their two blowout losses last week to the Wings and Sun. As a result they're now on a three-game losing streak of their own, and have dropped six of seven.
11. Dallas Wings (6-16) -- last week No. 11
The good news for the Wings is that they managed to end their six-game losing streak with a 23-point blowout win over the Liberty. The bad news is that they followed that up by losing at home to an Aces team playing without both A'ja Wilson and Liz Cambage. There really isn't too much new to say about this team. They play hard, but rely way too much on Arike Ogunbowale hitting a bunch of jumpers.
12. Atlanta Dream (5-17) -- last week No. 12
It doesn't appear there will be a second-half turnaround for the Dream. They opened the post-All Star break portion of their schedule with losses to the Fever and Sky, two teams they would have expected to be much better than this season. With those losses their losing streak has now reached seven games, and they're still stuck in last place.