Parker drives Sparks into West finals

Los Angeles forward Candace Parker talked earlier this summer about her winter plans, saying she hoped to go overseas and compete.

Are you surprised? In some ways, it is not what you'd necessarily expect. Most WNBA players do compete in other leagues when the summer season ends, but it's mainly for financial reasons. But Parker, married to NBA player Shelden Williams and with a long-term potential for lucrative endorsements, would seem less motivated by that.

If Parker does indeed go overseas, it won't be because she absolutely needs to. It will be because she wants to. And her performance this season has been a testament to that very thing: how much Parker wants to play basketball, and play it well.

On Sunday in Seattle, the Storm were trying to keep the momentum going from Friday's improbable victory over L.A. in Game 2 of their first-round series. The KeyArena crowd was hyped up. The Sparks were dealing with the pressure of not letting Lisa Leslie's career end this way. And the Storm players -- having been without injured Lauren Jackson for more than three weeks now -- have adjusted to that as best they can.

The pieces were in place for Seattle to end its string of first-round playoff losses and eliminate an L.A. team that seemed more the favorite in this series even though the Storm were the better seed.

But it didn't come close to happening. The game early on was marred by over-officiating, which took the vitality out of the pace and the crowd. It was irritating to watch. However, the Sparks didn't let that stop them from taking control.

L.A. won 75-64, taking the series 2-1. Afterward, Parker seemed a litter perturbed that the Sparks hadn't just blown out the Storm. That's the level of perfection she expects, and it's a key reason why her teammate Leslie is going to the Western Conference finals instead of her career already being over.

Parker gave birth to her daughter in May. Had she not committed fully to returning this season not just as a "serviceable" player but a spectacular one, the Sparks very well might not have made the playoffs.

On Sunday, Parker had 22 points, eight rebounds, three blocks and two assists. She didn't have to be a one-woman show by any means, because the Sparks really played well as a team. L.A. has had two primary concerns this season: the health of its stars (along with Parker's maternity leave, Leslie missed 11 games with knee trouble) and then how well those stars would mesh together on the court.

That wasn't really a personality thing, but more a function of L.A. not having a point guard that was as effective or experienced as, say, someone like Seattle's Sue Bird. But on Sunday, the Sparks didn't really lack anything.

Tina Thompson, so long a stalwart at Houston and part of four WNBA title teams there, had 12 points, six rebounds and five assists. She hit big shots at times when L.A. really needed to answer Seattle's attempts to overtake the Sparks.

Another veteran, DeLisha Milton-Jones, had 11 points and nine rebounds. She's not nicknamed "D-Nasty" for nothing; Milton-Jones makes sure you feel like you've been in a battle when you play her team. She was her usual self in that department against Seattle.

Noelle Quinn, who is finding a comfort level in her third season in the WNBA and first with L.A., made the inbounds pass that Camille Little stole on Friday, which gave the Storm the winning basket. Quinn might have been shaken by it, and it could have affected her play Sunday. But it didn't appear to, as she had nine points and seven assists.

And Leslie, who rightfully has been the "focus" of this season for L.A., had 13 points and eight rebounds. She seemed motivated but not overwhelmed by the emotional pressure of Sunday's game.

Ultimately, though, even in this team effort, Parker's individual performance stood out. She logged 37 minutes, the most on her team, and she executed some of the balletic yet powerful moves that make her game so pleasing to watch -- and hard to stop.

Parker turned 23 in April, and her youth is part of the reason she has been able to return as quickly and effectively as she has from giving birth. But no matter what physical advantages Parker had to facilitate her comeback, it still had to be fueled by a lot of determination and willpower.

Bouncing back from pregnancy to achieve a great deal athletically has become so "commonplace" -- thanks to women in many different sports -- that we've almost come to take it for granted.

When it's more rare in a particular sport for a variety of reasons -- such as tennis -- more fuss is made of it. Such was the case with U.S. Open winner Kim Clijsters, who last week became the first "mom" to take a Grand Slam title since Evonne Goolagong Cawley had done it in 1980.

But the Sparks have five moms -- Parker, Leslie, Thompson, Marie Ferdinand-Harris and Vanessa Hayden -- on their roster. The newest is Parker, and she did everything right to be ready for this season.

Parker didn't "have" to do this. She's a superstar. It's not as if there was the slightest chance the Sparks were going to cut her loose if she said, "Hey, I need more time to recover."

Nobody was going to push Parker harder than she has pushed herself. She has done that and at the same time seems completely committed to all the responsibilities of being a mom.

Now, this isn't to suggest that millions of women don't do this balancing act, because they do. At the same time, there is an undeniable physical toll that playing a professional sport takes on a human body.

Parker had to prepare for that and try to stay in as good a shape as possible throughout her pregnancy. It took a mental discipline and determination that we'd seen throughout her career as she has rehabbed from serious knee injuries, but this was a different challenge.

Leslie, who turned 35 during the 2007 season, did take that year off from playing as she gave birth. For her, Parker's presence as a big contributor in Leslie's final season has been the best possible send-off gift.

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