LOS ANGELES -- Nneka Ogwumike grew up as part of a dazzling hoops sister act with her sibling, Chiney.
But since coming to the Sparks, her pairing with Candace Parker has helped Ogwumike win the league's MVP award and has Los Angeles a victory away from a WNBA title.
"It's like I have another sister now," Ogwumike said after the Sparks' 92-75 victory over Minnesota on Friday in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals. "I've learned so much from her, and I think she's learned from me.
"We play through our mistakes together, we're always communicating, we're switching people on defense. We're that voice in each other's head that really gets us going. That's the relationship we've developed."
Ogwumike actually has three younger sisters, including Connecticut Sun star and former Stanford teammate Chiney, but Parker has been like her older sister. Since Ogwumike was drafted No. 1 by the Sparks in 2012 -- Parker was the top pick in 2008 -- we've watched this duo develop. Friday was an exceptional showcase of just how much this tandem means to the Sparks.
In a game in which the Sparks' aggression and energy were exactly what they hoped for, the table was set for Parker and Ogwumike to feast. Parker had 24 points and nine rebounds, Ogwumike 21 and nine. They were a combined 19-of-33 from the field and helped Los Angeles win the board battle 29-24 for just the second time in the teams' six meetings this season.
"They're our team," said Sparks guard Alana Beard of the post duo, although she had a heck of a game herself with 15 points and a game-high seven assists. "They're two different players who make each other better. I think Game 2 was a prime example of what happens when they don't play in sync. And tonight was an example of when they do.
"Nneka does all the little things, and Candace is one of the best all-around players in the game. So it works."
"I had to look myself in the mirror; that's not what I want to give. I still need to be aggressive for my team, even when things aren't going my way."Candace Parker, who called her performance "nonexistent" in Games 1 and 2
It sure did Friday, and the Lynx were not able to do much to stop it.
"It's absolutely all on the want-to of Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker to start the game," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. "And then [Essence] Carson and Beard throughout the game. Their want-to was on 10, which is exactly where you would expect it to be.
"They won the persistency battle. We didn't rise to the occasion. We were soft. Did I see that coming? Absolutely not. It was disappointing, to say the least."
Parker and Ogwumike are such a 1-2 punch, though, that they can knock the stuffing out of other teams. Even a team with three championships like Minnesota.
The Sparks haven't won a WNBA title since 2002; Parker was 16 years old then and Ogwumike 12. Parker won two NCAA titles while at Tennessee; Ogwumike led Stanford to the Final Four each of her four seasons but didn't win a championship.
Once they were together with the Sparks, they knew they could help each other to a title. But it would take collaboration and flexibility from both. Parker, as great a player as she is, can get lost in her own ruminating sometimes and tend toward pessimism. Ogwumike, by contrast, could be president for life of the "look on the sunny side" club.
"They balance each other really well," Beard said. "Nneka is the one who's always going to be optimistic in everything. Candace is more of a thinker who will analyze everything."
Parker's analysis of her own performance in the first two games of this series was pull-no-punches brutal.
"I was nonexistent until this game," Parker said. "Even the first game, we squeaked it out with Alana's buzzer-beater, but I wasn't effective."
That's harsh. Parker had 14 points, nine rebounds and three assists in the Sparks' 78-76 victory in Game 1. But she was disappointed that she didn't have more of an impact in the fourth quarter. And "disappointed" doesn't even begin to describe her evaluation of her 3-of-12 struggle for six points, with four rebounds, in Tuesday's 79-60 loss.
"I had to look myself in the mirror; that's not what I want to give," Parker said. "I still need to be aggressive for my team, even when things aren't going my way. My teammates told me, and my coach told me.
"That's where I think this team is special: We're able to be honest with each other because we know it's coming from a good place."
Parker said the bond she has with Ogwumike was particularly strengthened by the difficulties the team went through in 2014, when coach Carol Ross was fired in late July after 22 games, and general manager Penny Toler took over on the sidelines. Los Angeles finished 16-18 and got swept in the Western Conference semifinals by eventual champion Phoenix.
The Sparks had been expecting so much more that season, and it was crushing to them to have not come closer to reaching their potential. Brian Agler took over as coach for 2015, and Parker sat out the first part of the season to rest. But once she returned, things really began to click. The Sparks lost 2-1 in the conference semifinals to Minnesota last year, but the seeds were sown for this season when they went 26-8 and had the second-best record behind the Lynx.
Ogwumike had the best season of her young career and won the MVP award. Her rise to the most elite level of the WNBA didn't stir any "sibling rivalry" with Parker, a two-time MVP herself. In fact, no one was happier than Parker, who says of Ogwumike's zest for playing, "I really respect her. That girl never stops."
As Beard said, Parker and Ogwumike have cultivated some of their own best qualities in each other.
"I definitely feel I am a little more fierce now because of her," Ogwumike said. "And I think my looking at the bright side of things ... is something that I hope has rubbed off on her. When we tap into those things, on and off the court, it's really awesome."