Parker’s rejuvenation propels Sparks into the playoffs

Candace Parker is back. Really back.

She is back to being vocal on the court. She pumps her fists sometimes after making crucial game shots. She smiles during the game, and on the bench. The All-Star, eighth-year forward just seems happy playing.

And perhaps nowhere since her return to the Los Angeles Sparks six weeks ago was Parker’s rebirth more evident than on Sunday, as the Sparks were trying to beat the Shock and secure a playoff spot.

Parker had over 30 points as Los Angeles ran up their lead, and she positioned herself underneath the Tulsa basket to take a charge. The contact sent her sliding across the floor a few feet, and as the referee’s whistle tweeted the offensive foul, Parker pumped her fist hard, while still laying down. The crowd roared and Parker, still lying, kicked her feet in pure joy. Her teammates came to her laughing and pulled her to her feet. Parker smiled all the way to the bench, and kept smiling after she sat down.

“It was huge for us,” she said after the win. “We wanted to clinch (the playoff spot) for ourselves and not have somebody else do it for us. I think we’re on an upswing, and it’s positive to be playing like this to end the year.”

To be sure, two-time league MVP and rookie of the year Parker has always put up the numbers, since the Sparks drafted her with their first pick in 2008. But as she breezily palms the ball these days while deciding where to pass it next, her play and demeanor is remniscent of her college days at Tennessee, where she lead the team to two consecutive National Championships her last two years. It seems like the WNBA rookie Parker, who dunked twice in her first season, has suddenly reappeared.

And she’s stepped it up.

This year Parker leads the Sparks in scoring, at 19.4 points per game; rebounds, averaging 10 per game – up three from last season; and assists, with 6.3 per game, up from 4.3 in 2014. She has recorded 12 double-doubles, and made a career-high four three-pointers on Sunday en route to a 2015-best 33 points.

Parker announced before this season that she would sit out for part of it, after playing year-round every year since her graduation for both the Sparks and for Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg.

During her time off, Parker spent a lot of time with family, including traveling to a family reunion. She acknowledged that the break was restorative for her both physically and mentally.

“Yes, mentally that was 50 percent of it as well,” Parker said. “Physically it helped, but mentally when you miss the game and you’re actually able to come out and to love to play, to be out on the court, it definitely means a lot.”

Parker’s effect on the Sparks since her return has been meteoric. At the halfway point of the season, Los Angeles had won only three games and were all alone at the bottom of the Western Conference. Since Parker rejoined them, the Sparks are 11-5 and are now headed to a WNBA franchise record 15th playoff appearance.

She said they are continually getting better and still have a way to go.

“I think we are improving game by game,” Parker said. “I think we’re getting better, and I think that the sky is the limit for us. This team has been through a lot – we’ve been through everything. But that doesn’t guarantee that we deserve anything.”

“I think we can play better; that’s what’s scary. Everybody is feeling good, but I still think our best basketball is still ahead of us. Right now it’s about getting wins, and continuing to get better and learning. We have a tendency to let up when we get ahead, and we can’t do that in the playoffs. We have to close out games better.”

Since Parker came to the Sparks the team has been through five coaches, including current coach Brian Agler, now in his first year. The 2014 season saw a Los Angeles team that struggled with on-court cohesion both before and after coach Carol Ross was fired midway through the year, and replaced temporarily with general manager Penny Toler.

Parker alluded to the difficulties and said she takes nothing for granted.

“A lot of the members of the team this year were on the team last year. I don’t forget what I’ve been through the last eight seasons,” she said. “To have an opportunity to be in the playoffs right now is something you can’t pass up, because you look up and you’ve been in the league eight years.”

As has always been the case, the Sparks have plenty of talent on the roster this season. Putting it together is the challenge.

“It’s just mental with our team – raising your level of focus as the game continues, no matter what the score is. That’s been our Achilles heel all year,” Parker said after the Shock win.

“I was proud of the way we closed out the game today. We were up nine and we extended the lead. We’re definitely capable…’s just our mental focus.”

Agler said the responsibilty doesn’t all fall on the shoulders of the players.

“We’ve had so many moving pieces this year,” he said. “Myself, I’m still learning a lot about our team: who needs to be on the floor, who needs to have the ball in their hands. All the little things you need to know about a team to finish games.”

“It’s not always on the players; it’s on us coaches, too. We’ve got to put the right pieces together and communicate what we want done.”

The Sparks play two more regular-season games this week, against the Dream and the Mercury, before they find out their playoff seed.

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 06:  Candace Parker #3 of the Los Angeles Sparks handles the ball against Tiffany Jackson-Jones #33 of the Tulsa Shock in a WNBA game at Staples Center on September 6, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Candace Parker; Tiffany Jackson-Jones
Candace Parker drives past Tiffany Jackson-Jones during Sunday’s game, where Parker scored 33 points. Photo by Leon Bennett/T.G. Sports
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 06:  Candace Parker #3 of the Los Angeles Sparks goes to the basket against Vicki Baugh #24 of the Tulsa Shock in a WNBA game at Staples Center on September 6, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Candace Parker; Vicki Baugh
Candace Parker scores over former college teammate Vicki Baugh in Sunday’s game against the Shock. Photo by Leon Bennett/T.G. Sports