It’s been a year of disrespect for Candace Parker, starting with an unexpected cut from the Team USA’s Olympic roster. She served a key role in the team’s gold medal wins in Beijing and London, and was expected to be a lock for Rio.
Parker and the Los Angeles Sparks moved on, though, and finished with their best record in 15 years. She finished top 10 in the league in points, rebounds, assists, and steals per game, grew her five-year teammate Nneka Ogwumike into the MVP, and helped L.A. clinch the No. 2 seed. The media still left her off an All-WNBA team for the first time since 2011.
And then Parker led her team to the WNBA championship.
When the Sparks needed her most in a thrilling Game 5 win over the dominant Minnesota Lynx, Parker delivered with 28 points and 12 rebounds. Ogwumike hit the game-winner, but Parker kept her team in the game as Ogwumike and Kristi Tolliver were saddled with foul trouble. She’s now a WNBA champion, and nobody can take that away from her.
It was the perfect clincher after an up-and-down Finals series. Parker looked like an All-WNBA Olympian in Game 3 as LA crushed Minnesota, 92-75. She scored 24 points on 11-for-19 shooting, grabbed nine rebounds, dished two assists and blocked a pair of shots.
After forcing up fadeaway shots in a dismal Game 2 showing in which she told ESPN’s LaChina Robinson, “I sucked,” Parker made an effort to get into the paint. An athletic 6’4, she was able to dribble past Rebekkah Brunson, Sylvia Fowles or really anyone the Lynx placed on her. Her ability to get to the rim allowed the Sparks to open the game on a 30-8 run that the Lynx couldn’t climb back from.
“[Looking to score on every play] was a product of me being nonexistent in every game we played Minnesota this year,” Parker said in the postgame conference. “I went back and watched film, and my presence wasn't there. We had a game plan of just going to the basket and trying to be aggressive.”
The difference in her scoring mindset was clear as she shook off her 3-for-12 shooting performance in Game 2, flashing post moves and extending short hook shots over outstretched Lynx defenders. Parker’s movement had Ogwumike going, too, cutting into the lane for 21 points and nine rebounds herself. The tandem was too much.
But demons threatened to return in Game 4. With a chance to close out the Lynx, Parker came up short, finishing 4-14 from the field. Parker had to watch Maya Moore dominate on her home floor.
Game 5 offered a chance at redemption, though, and Parker seized it. It’s cliche to say it, but Parker willed her team to victory. With Ogwumike and Tolliver in and out of the game, Parker led the Sparks in scoring, rebounds and steals while scoring 36 percent of her team’s points.
Though Ogwumike is the MVP and an All-WNBA first-team member, the Sparks are still Parker’s team. It has been since Lisa Leslie left in 2010. She was drafted No. 1 overall and named Rookie of the Year in the same season. She may not be the team’s leader in points anymore, but her effect on the game is apparent.
There was a trickle-down effect in the team’s play as hers dipped in Game 2. As Parker struggled with shot selection, so did her teammates, hitting just 33 percent as a unit. When Parker lacked effort boxing out and rebounding, her team was beat 46-32 on the boards. But with a different approach to Game 3, Parker and LA rolled on 55 percent shooting and out-rebounded Minnesota for the second time in six games this season. The same exact thing happened in Game 5.
“[Parker] had a heck of a year,” coach Brian Agler said at the postgame press conference after Game 3. “Not only statistically but as a leader, and the thing that I'm shocked [is] that some basketball people don't understand this. She makes other people better on our team.”
Now, Parker can finally catch the spotlight for what she has achieved. She and Ogwumike — who was also left off the Olympic roster — dethroned the reigning champion Lynx, who made up one-third of Rio’s roster, and shocked everyone in what wasn’t supposed to be their year. She won’t be overlooked again.
Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published after Game 3. It has been updated.
Parker dedicates win to Pat Summitt