Candace Parker’s beautiful and brilliant résumé is complete.
It took 40 minutes of amazingly breathtaking basketball that featured 24 lead changes, and 11 ties for a determined Parker to add the missing piece to her packed portfolio of milestones, accolades, and highlights.
In an epic instant classic and a timeless thriller that went beyond the hype, the Los Angeles Sparks outlasted the Minnesota Lynx, 77-76, to win its first WNBA championship in 14 years Thursday night at the sold-out Target Center. It was an awesome night for women’s basketball in which these two terrific teams provided the perfect ending to the league’s 20th season.
“It’s surreal,” Parker said in a NBA-TV interview. “I feel like I am going to keep waking up from a dream because I feel like we all dreamt this. This journey has been so special with this group, this team and it was only fitting it came down to the way it was.”
The only way for the Sparks to leave the Target Center with the championship trophy and dethrone the reigning champion Lynx was for Parker to be at her absolute best. After a tough fourth game in Sunday’s loss, Parker delivered when it mattered most for the Sparks, who claimed the amazing best-of-five series, 3-2.
While it was nice for everybody to root for Parker to win her first WNBA title, she knew it was only going to be achieved one way: On the court and against the reigning champions in a hostile environment against arguably the most clutch player on the planet in Maya Moore.
Delivering a ferocious assault on the basket, Parker’s disposition to dominate was better than anybody’s on the floor. She played with heart, hustle, grit and gristle in finishing with a game-high 28 points and 12 rebounds.
Parker made sweet moves around the basket to finish shots, fadeaway jumpers, stole passes, threw no-look passes, snatched rebounds like they were winning Powerball tickets, and kept her team together when the Lynx made their final and impressive charge.
The final 72 seconds featured five lead changes, which included a pair of Moore baskets that gave the Lynx temporary leads.
Parker was named WNBA Finals MVP even though the history books will show that current MVP Nneka Ogwumike’s putback of her own missed shot with 3.1 seconds remaining was the difference. She finished with a double-double of 12 points and 12 rebounds.
Once the final buzzer sounded, Parker was tackled by Kristi Toliver before getting up and then jumping into the arms of her jubilant gold-shirted Spark teammates. Parker, who spent some time lying on the floor, also shared a nice embrace with team part-owner Magic Johnson, who knows a thing or two about winning championships.
Nobody deserved this moment more than Parker, whose thoughts were with the late Pat Summitt, her former college coach at the University of Tennessee who died in June after a long battle with early onset dementia.
Parker’s first public statement as a newly crowned champion was succinct and poignant.
“This one’s for Pat,” a teary-eyed and emotional Parker said to ESPN’s Holly Rowe in the postgame interview in the immediate aftermath of the amazing contest.
Whenever Parker thought about giving in, she heard Summitt’s voice in her head demanding more. Parker admitted listening to one of Summitt’s old speeches before the game.
“I think Coach has been telling me this all year, that this series really was about defense and finishing plays rebounding, and I heard that for four years at Tennessee,” Parker said. “I wasn't upholding my end of the bargain in this series for my teammates.”
Parker had seemingly been forgotten this season despite ranking among the league’s top 10 in points, rebounds and assists. Parker was left off the U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball Team and not named to either the first or second All-WNBA team. Yet, despite the slights, Parker continued to shine, dominate, and lead her teammates. She didn’t complain and said all of the politically correct things when asked about the perceived slights.
“I've never been around somebody that has been critiqued so hard, and I've not ever been around anybody that I'm more happy for than Candace tonight, for what she's gone through this season,” said Sparks head coach Brian Alger, who played “Rocky Top” on his phone before speaking at the postgame press conference. “It's been unbelievable. She stayed on the high road, fought through everything, stayed with it, was persistent, and sort of like – she went through sort of like what our team went through, the ups and downs. We're really happy with how we played tonight, showed a lot of resiliency and perseverance and made plays down the stretch.”
Parker’s been knocked down a few times with injuries and a few heartbreaking setbacks. However, Parker displayed championship hallmarks of great character and resilience in how she’s picked herself up and continued persevering until she finally reached the champagne-soaked promised-land.
While winning championships have become the measuring stick for greatness, Parker was viewed as something different because she hadn’t been able to win a title since entering the league in 2008, which is unfair. A role model and hard-worker, Parker has been a gift and a transcendent talent that has helped the WNBA grow.
It’s great to see awesome people rewarded for the blood, sweat and tears they poured into their craft.
Like any great player, Parker needed help and it arrived in bunches from a committee of contributors. Despite mounting foul trouble, the Sparks remained poised despite trailing by six points late in the third quarter.
Chelsea Gray opened the fourth quarter with six consecutive points. Kristi Toliver lobbed in ridiculous rainbows from beyond the 3-point line. Alana Beard and Essence Carson played soul-to-soul defense and forced the Lynx into difficult shots that they made to their credit. Oguwmike was in the right place at the right time late in the game to score over the outstretched hands of 6 foot, 5 inch Sylvia Fowles.
The unfortunate part of this classic contest was the shaky officiating in the second half.
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve was hit with a technical foul after sprinting down the sidelines – out of the coaches’ box – to get her teams’ attention to commit a foul after Fowles was injured. Toliver made the free throw. The biggest missed call was a made Ogwumike basket that appeared to leave her hands after the shot clock expired late in the contest. Three Spark points. One point Lynx loss. Do the math.
Quite naturally Reeve wasn’t happy.
“I don't get paid enough to have to do somebody else's job, too,” Reeve said when asked about what can be done to improve the quality of officiating. “Just get the simple things right, simple. Eight-second call, shot-clock violation. Get the simple things right and we'll live with the other stuff that happens in a game. I'm not taking anything away from LA. Please know that. It takes hustle plays to win championships on the road, and they made hustle plays. But it's unfortunate that we're even having this discussion.”
On Friday, the league issued a statement basically suppporting Reeve in saying the officials erred on the play and should not have allowed the basket.
Parker didn’t need a championship to validate her greatness, as her legacy was cemented before the WNBA Finals even started. However, since diamonds are a woman’s best friend Parker is thrilled to add some bling to her collection while silencing her bleacher critics forever. Now she can flash a championship ring in their faces.
“I can't even describe this journey that this team has been on,” Parker said. “I mean, everybody on this team has a story, and this last year has been really tough for me personally, and my teammates and my coaches were always there for me. I think I'm excited because we won a championship, but the journey to get here, I wouldn't have wanted to do it with anybody else, with any other team, any other coaches. It's amazing when you surround yourself with great people how fun it is and exciting when you get what you want."