Aug 4. WNBA Preview — Seattle Storm (12-10) at Los Angeles Sparks (12-8)

(Chelsea Gray photo courtesy Los Angeles Sparks official Twitter account)

The Seattle Storm look to salvage the final leg of a difficult three-game stretch Sunday night when they face the Los Angeles Sparks.

The Storm (12-10) are one game behind Los Angeles (12-8) for fourth overall, which carries a bye into the second round. The defending champions, who are without injured starters Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird this season, saw just how much of a difference there is without star power in losses to Las Vegas and Washington – two teams above Seattle in the standings — the last two games.

Dan Hughes’ team is coming off a 99-79 thumping at home by the Washington Mystics on Friday night in the second rematch following last year’s WNBA Finals sweep by the Storm. All-Star Natasha Howard was the only player in double figures with 26 points as Seattle never recovered from Washington’s game-opening 18-3 blitz.

“We had been off for a while and just really didn’t come to game speed,” Hughes told the Seattle Times about the slow start. “We didn’t start our starters at game speed. We didn’t do a good job of coming out and pacing the game. When you put yourself in a hole like we did, you’re going to have to have a combination of things and defensively you’ve got to have a number of stops to make that up. We just didn’t do that tonight.”

Howard is fourth in the league in scoring at 18.5 points per game but has averaged 23.3 in Seattle’s last four contests. The Storm have lost three of their last four games on the road after splitting their first six outside Seattle.

Los Angeles appears to finally be at full strength as it recorded a 76-68 victory over Las Vegas on Thursday night. Nneka Ogwumike continued her torrid stretch of play with 19 points and 11 rebounds for her fifth double-double in eight games, and Candace Parker returned after a five-game absence due to an ankle injury to contribute 16 points and eight rebounds.

“It felt great to be back out there with my teammates,” said Parker, who has been limited to eight games this year, to the Los Angeles Times. “It’s not something that I take for granted being back out there on the floor. I’ve done a lot of rehab to get back to this point, but I feel confident and healthy.”

Ogwumike, who was named WNBA Player of the Month for July, has averaged 21.3 points and 10.0 rebounds in her last eight games. Los Angeles is looking for its sixth consecutive home win and has outscored opponents by an average of 13.4 points during its five-game run at Staples Center.

The Storm rode the emotion of Hughes’ return to the bench following cancer treatment to blow out the Sparks 84-62 at home June 21. Howard had 20 points while fellow All-Star Jewel Loyd hit a career-high five 3-pointers and finished with 23 points.

Ogwumike was the only Sparks player in double figures with 10 points as Los Angeles shot 37.7 percent and allowed Seattle to hit 14 of 26 from beyond the arc.

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