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Mercury spoil Parker's season debut

Candace Parker's return to the Sparks on Sunday night in Los Angeles ended up having some unexpected drama from other sources.

There were the preparations at the Staples Center for the upcoming Michael Jackson memorial, which might get a little bit nuts. And there was Mercury leading scorer Diana Taurasi playing her first game since a DUI citation last week in Phoenix. (The legal process has just started; a possible suspension from the league will depend on the situation's resolution.)

Still, the big news of the night was indeed Parker's taking the court again, as she had been out on maternity leave. Her daughter was born May 13, and CP3 lived up to her prediction that she would be back in early July to play her second season in the WNBA.

Was she really "back"? Well, nobody could have expected her to be her MVP self on Sunday -- and she wasn't. But Parker accrued six points, four rebounds and two assists in just more than 20 minutes of playing time. And beyond that, she had presence.

How could anyone give her less than an A for her effort? With Lisa Leslie out (ankle) and the Sparks off to a slow start, Los Angeles really needed the lift. Many WNBA watchers suspect that the Sparks mentally have been in waiting-for-Candace mode, even though they were trying hard to avoid this.

Parker didn't move with the alacrity that we're used to; she's not physically herself yet. But she played aggressively.

And it's not as if she was debuting against the likes of the 1998 Washington Mystics. Rather, she came back against the best team in the Western Conference. The Mercury won 104-89, improving to 8-4 and tying East-leading Indiana for the most victories in the WNBA.

The Mercury are not just a scoring machine this season; although with Taurasi (20 points Sunday), Cappie Pondexter (21) and DeWanna Bonner (17), Phoenix is as formidable as usual on offense. However, the Mercury also present some real defensive challenges for teams.

Phoenix got its best game yet this season from reserve center Nicole Ohlde (nine points, five rebounds), and her presence just adds to the team's functional depth in the paint.

Thus, it's very important to take into consideration the opponent when judging Parker's comeback.

Tina Thompson and Betty Lennox each had 17 points for L.A. on Sunday and have been carrying the load with both Leslie and Parker out. Truth is, the Sparks' offensive output was probably enough to beat most teams on most nights, but not Phoenix.

L.A.'s record is 3-6. But even though the Sparks are looking up at four teams ahead of them in the West standings, there's plenty of time to click -- first with Parker back, then with Leslie back, too.

Except there's something else the Sparks have to deal with -- the goofy scheduling that seems to happen a bit too often in the WNBA. Sunday's contest was both their first and last home game in July.

From Thursday through Aug. 1, the Sparks will play seven games, all on the road. Also throw in the All-Star Game, which will be July 25 in Connecticut. Parker, the new mom, will have to adjust to taking care of her baby while traveling quite a lot.

If L.A. gets through July in decent shape -- which is obviously not a sure thing -- the good news for the Sparks is that they'll play 10 of their 14 games in August at home.

By then, Parker might be at close-to-standard form, and the Sparks might be enjoying their view in the standings much better. The latter almost certainly will depend a lot on the former.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.