LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Sparks once spoke boldly about going undefeated. Now the defending WNBA champions seem to be battling a late-season confidence crisis.
The Sparks won 12 of their first 13 games, but have gone 10-5 since the end of June and lost two in a row last week for the first time this season.
"When you lose once, you lose twice, it staggers you for a moment," All-Star center Lisa Leslie said. "But you can't second-guess yourself or lose your confidence. We're still in first place, we're still the best team in the WNBA, and we have to come out and play like that."
With four games left in the regular season, Los Angeles holds a one-game lead over second-place Houston in the Western Conference. Third-place Utah - one of the Sparks' final four opponents - is four games behind.
The Sparks own the league's best record at 21-6, but opponents seem to have found weaknesses. Los Angeles had 18 turnovers, two technicals and a flagrant foul in an 81-76 loss to Seattle on Thursday.
"The Sparks are still the champs, but the talent throughout the league is better," Utah coach Candi Harvey said. "There's more competitive teams."
The Sparks' six losses have come against Eastern Conference leader New York, Houston, Charlotte and middle-of-the-pack teams Miami and Seattle (twice).
So far, the Sparks have one more loss than last season, when they went 34-5 and became the league's first champion other than Houston.
Los Angeles blew a 17-point lead against Utah on Sunday night before winning 90-86.
"We continued to fight," Leslie said. "We could have easily lost the game, just laid down and said, 'Because of fatigue, well, they got us.' We don't have that mind-set. Everybody was fighting. That's the sign of a champion."
But coach Michael Cooper didn't think the Sparks' rally after wasting a lead was anything to be proud about.
"It has to be a negative because good teams aren't going to let that happen," he said. "We let them back into the game. Period."
Last week, after the Sparks' second consecutive loss, Cooper, general manager Penny Toler and team president Johnny Buss addressed the players for 25 minutes. That sort of meeting rarely happens.
"The only time we ever want to see Johnny Buss is when we're popping champagne and he comes in to congratulate us," forward DeLisha Milton said.
On June 30, the Sparks had a 16-point lead over Houston, only to lose 60-58 and spoil their 28-game home winning streak. They were 19-1 at home last season, but three of this season's losses have been at Staples Center.
"We get complacent sometimes when we have a big lead," Cooper said. "We need to get that killer instinct and learn to put teams away."
The Sparks get that chance Thursday against visiting Houston. A victory would clinch home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
"It's our biggest game of the season," Leslie said. "We want that game, just like they want that game."
The teams have split two games, with Los Angeles winning 68-55 in Houston.
"We owe them because they came in and broke our home-court winning streak," Milton said. "We really need to let them know that was a fluke."
Milton attributes the Sparks' struggles to what she calls "the subtle things," like blown defensive assignments and lack of rebounding.
"It's just a mental thing," she said. "Everyone has to continue to believe in themselves."
Milton has noticed opponents "licking their chops" each time the Sparks lose.
"You can see that in their eyes, you can see it in the swagger when they walk on the court," she said. "Now is the time we have to put our foot down and let them know that playoff time is coming and it's a whole different brand of basketball that's being played."
The Sparks are healthy, except for Milton's bruised right knee, and they have some time to prepare for the Comets.
"We're going to come ready," forward Mwadi Mabika said, "and win."
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