Sparks' playoff loss does not sit well with Candace Parker

Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas, right, keeps Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker.
Sparks forward Candace Parker, left, tries to keep the ball away from Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas during the Sparks' season-ending playoff loss Thursday. (Chris O'Meara / Associated Press)

The ones that got away haunt Candace Parker. The Sparks forward still remembers Sophia Young’s bank shot in Game 2 of the 2008 Western Conference finals and Brittney Griner’s turnaround jumper at Staples Center that sent the Sparks home in 2013. All those close calls against Minnesota.

Add Thursday’s loss to the seventh-seeded Connecticut Sun to the list, as the No. 3-seeded Sparks were upset 73-59 by a team they swept in the regular season. Despite Parker’s 22 points, 14 rebounds and five assists, the Sparks were held to their lowest point total since their last game of 2019, when the Sun also eliminated them from the playoffs. All-Star forward Nneka Ogwumike, who averaged 13.3 points this season, missed the playoff game because of a migraine.

For Parker, who reached the championship pinnacle in 2016 and continues to chase another prize, having to pick up the pieces under the cry of “next year” is beginning to sound like a mocking call instead of optimistic hope.

"It's been 13 years of the future being bright. At some point we got to put it together,” Parker said. “I want to be in L.A. I've been in L.A. my entire career. I've had a number of opportunities and a number of times where it's been a real option to leave and I don't want to leave L.A. But at the same time, we gotta get better. Can't keep saying ‘next year.’”

Parker, who signed an extension in 2017 for an unspecified length, bounced back from career lows in points, rebounds and blocked shots in 2019 to finish third in the 2020 MVP race. The 34-year-old was selected Associated Press defensive player of the year after a league-leading 9.7 rebounds per game. She was the Sparks’ leading scorer with 14.7 points and second in assists with 4.6.

“Candace did as good a job that you could possibly do under these circumstances, trying to push our team over the top,” coach Derek Fisher said. “We couldn’t get it done. I don’t know if there’s anything else she could have done.”

The Sparks relied on Parker for her stats and leadership during a compressed, quarantined season in Bradenton, Fla., where players embraced the opportunity to advocate for social justice. They were proud of their efforts to champion the #SayHerName movement and voting rights. Yet when it came to basketball, the Sparks are leaving Florida disappointed.

“It was bigger than basketball obviously but we were here with a purpose too, to play basketball," Parker said. "I'm gonna have to have time to reflect on [the bubble experience]. It just sucks that we lost."

With Parker at full strength, the Sparks hoped they could summit the championship mountain this season, especially after adding free agents Kristi Toliver and Seimone Augustus. However, the COVID-19 pandemic knocked them off course as Toliver and forward Chiney Ogwumike opted out of the season.

Toliver and Ogwumike remain under contract and are expected to rejoin the team next year. The 36-year-old Augustus, who averaged 5.9 points and shot 54.5% from three-point range in 21 games, all off the bench, was on a one-year deal, according to Forbes. The Sparks must also decide the fate of rookie Te’a Cooper, who was signed to replace Toliver and excelled off the bench, averaging seven points and two assists while injecting energy with aggressive on-ball defense.

“We’re excited about our future,” said Fisher, who finished his second season with the Sparks. “But I think we still have to really push to make sure that every person within our organization, from top to bottom, every player, that we are all living out the example of what it is we all want to be in terms of the excellence, way we work together, the way we communicate, the striving to be the best. We have to find a way to do that.”

Nguyen reported from Los Angeles.