<
>

Candace Parker puts Sparks on her back in Game 2 win

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Digging deep is nothing new for the Sparks.

No one in the league dragged themselves out of a bigger hole to end up in this place, fighting and scrapping to stay in contention for a title.

Los Angeles has been dealing all season with obstacles, players in and out of the lineup with injuries, a superstar who didn't show up until the All-Star break, a nightmarish start that had the Sparks wearing the league's worst record for a long stretch.

So this little thing on Sunday, the matter of having to play at the Pyramid on the campus of Long Beach State, more than an hour away from their home floor, in a gym they hadn't seen all season -- and facing elimination against the West's top seed to boot -- was not the scenario that was going to take out the Sparks.

Not if Candace Parker had anything to say about it. And she usually does.

Parker is in Year 8 of her quest to win a WNBA title, and neither her frustration nor her hunger is ever very far from the surface.

There was a moment in the first half against Minnesota in Los Angeles' 81-71 win -- which forced a deciding third game (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET Tuesday) in the opening round of the WNBA playoffs -- when Parker was all over Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson near half court. Brunson had the ball and Parker was blanketing her with those long arms. Brunson tried to move Parker off of her, Parker hit the floor and Brunson was whistled for the offensive foul.

Parker sat on the floor, pounded her chest and bellowed.

As the second quarter began, Parker was a lit match, fueled and burning. She put up 15 points in the second quarter -- including a run of 13 straight -- and catapulted Los Angeles to a 53-35 halftime lead.

Parker finished with 25 points 10 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals in the Sparks' first playoff victory since 2013.

But that effort alone doesn't win your team a game this big. You need more. You need Alana Beard (11 points, 7 rebounds, 4 steals) making a pair of huge defensive plays in the final two minutes when the Lynx were primed to pounce, forcing Minnesota into a pair of key turnovers.

You need Serbian guard Ana Dabovic to come off the bench and score a career-best 19 points along with seven assists in a tide-turning performance.

You need moments like Jantel Lavender's 3-pointer from the corner with 1:46 left in the game to give the Sparks an 80-71 lead.

You need to do enough decent defensive work on Maya Moore -- who still got 27 points (including five 3-pointers) -- and Seimone Augustus (14 points on 5-of-15 shooting) that they don't send you home for the offseason.

You need to self-correct when the third quarter -- which has been a bugaboo all season -- starts poorly and one of the league's most experienced teams whittles a 22-point lead down to 65-61 with 8:45 to go in the game.

And you need to do it all in unfamiliar surroundings.

"We didn't even talk about it," Parker said of the Sparks' change of venue, necessitated because the Emmy Awards had taken over downtown Los Angeles. "That's what is so great about this team, everything we've been through. We've had to fight the whole year."

The Sparks came back to Southern California very disappointed after their Game 1 loss in Minnesota, feeling an opportunity was missed. Parker stewed into yesterday, texting coach Brian Agler about tweaks and adjustments she thought the team could make on the floor.

"She is extremely hungry," Agler said. "She was texting me saying, 'Why don't we do this or that?' and that's OK. Because it tells me she's thinking. She's one of the elite players in this league and I think you saw that out there today."

Agler said what Parker did on Sunday reminded him a lot of what he saw Tamika Catchings do for Indiana on Saturday: be the emotional center of a game that kept the season going.

"The thing that jumped out to me about that game was that Tamika wasn't going to let them lose," Agler said. "There are players out there who feel like they are worthy. And worthy doesn't mean it's going to be given to you. But you think you deserve it, so you want to go out and prove it."

Agler saw Parker do everything for his team on Sunday.

"It's not just scoring, it's rebounding, how active she was on the defensive end, the random defensive plays you have to make to push your team further into the playoffs," Agler said. "She's elevating her game right now and she's elevating her teammates as well."

Los Angeles might not be done with adversity just yet. In addition to the tall task of going back to Minnesota to win on the Lynx's home floor -- perhaps the toughest road win to get in the WNBA -- the Sparks are uncertain about the status of Nneka Ogwumike, who left the game with a neck strain in the third quarter after contact with Sylvia Fowles under the basket. Ogwumike, who was holding the back of her head and did not return, missed six games late in the season with concussion symptoms and will continue to be evaluated.