Sparks' Candace Parker at her peak as series shifts to Chicago

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Saturday, October 1, 2016

LOS ANGELES -- Among Candace Parker's favorite Chicago meals is the sort of thing you should ever eat unless you burn calories the way a world-class athlete like Parker does.

"Chili cheese dog with extra cheese, French fries, chocolate-cake milkshake," she said, laughing. "It's very healthy food."

Parker, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, will be going home to the Windy City on Sunday for the third -- and potentially decisive -- game of the Los Angeles Sparks' WNBA semifinal series with the Chicago Sky. Los Angeles' 99-84 victory Friday at Staples Center gave the Sparks a 2-0 series lead. One more victory will earn the Sparks their first trip to the WNBA Finals since 2003.

That would be a milestone for Parker, the Sparks' No. 1 draft pick in 2008 and a two-time league MVP. She has won everything else in her career except a WNBA title, and in truth she has had a lot of frustration in just trying to advance to the league's championship series.

On the way to the postgame meeting with reporters Friday, Parker mentioned to teammate Nneka Ogwumike that the Sparks have had a some very disappointing trips to the media room during past playoffs.

"We've had to do a lot of press conferences talking about 'next year' and what we need to do to improve," Parker said. "My rookie year -- it seems like it was just yesterday -- we barely missed the [WNBA] Finals. And when we left the court, I was like, 'Oh, we'll be back next year!' And that hasn't happened."

Parker was referring to the 2008 Western Conference finals, when the Sparks beat San Antonio by 15 points in the series opener, and were 1.3 seconds away from closing out the best-of-three series. But the Stars' Sophia Young took an inbounds pass, spun around and tossed up a shot from just inside the arc that bounced in for a 67-66 victory. San Antonio then won the third game, 76-72.

The Sparks also lost in the conference finals in 2009 to Phoenix and 2012 to Minnesota. In Parker's career, Los Angeles also has fallen in the conference semifinal four times, including 2-1 to Minnesota last year.

So it's understandable just how intense the feeling is now for Parker and the Sparks to not let this chance at the WNBA Finals get past them.

"You have to take advantage of the opportunities you have," Parker said. "We've focused on the little things, while seeing the bigger picture."

The Sparks fully expect the Sky to give them a battle Sunday (ESPN, 3 p.m. ET) when facing elimination back at Allstate Arena. But so far in this series, Chicago hasn't been able to impede the Sparks' offense. Parker had 20 points, 12 rebounds and 8 assists Friday. That followed a Game 1 performance in which she had 30 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists.

Ogwumike won the league's MVP award, and no one was happier for her than Parker. They have genuinely great chemistry with each other, and that has been critical to the Sparks this season.

But these past two games, Parker has played like she wants to make the statement that she's really at her peak for the playoffs.

"It's important to her," Sparks guard Kristi Toliver said. "And we want to win a championship for her. She's been here the longest, and she just wants it so bad."

The Sparks as a unit all have been playing with that kind of fervor. Three other Los Angeles starters scored in double figures Friday as Ogwumike had 18 points, Toliver 15 and Essence Carson 11.

Jantel Lavender came off the bench to do her thing in a big way, going 10 of 11 from the field for 20 points, plus 5 rebounds. Alana Beard had 2 points, but her defense was one of the key reasons the Sky shot 38.5 percent from the field (30 of 78).

Chicago got a lift off its bench, with Clarissa Dos Santos, Jamierra Faulkner and Allie Quigley combining for 40 points. But with the Sparks shooting 53.7 percent from the field (36 of 67) -- including 10 of 23 from behind the arc -- Chicago, which is without injured Elena Delle Donne, just didn't have anywhere near the firepower to stay with Los Angeles.

Parker wants a chance to be in the WNBA Finals, and she would be pumped up for Sunday's game no matter where it was played. But the fact that it's in Chicago is especially meaningful for her.

"I'm excited to play in front of my family and my friends and some people who were there from my first game in high school," she said. "It's a lot of fun to go home. Some really talented basketball players have come out of Chicago, and it was very competitive for me growing up."

Parker can impact games in so many ways, and that has been something Sparks coach Brian Agler has seen her do at a high level all season.

"When she's playing like she is right now, she's clearly one of the best in the world," he said. "To me, it has a lot to with focus and her desire and passion. She's been a really good leader for us this year and a tremendous teammate. I think we're having this year because of how she has tried to elevate everybody's play."

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