I’m sure Candace Parker has always loved the state of Connecticut.
Who can forget her infamous dunk that hushed the Hartford Civic Center crowd in 1997, on her way to 30 points, 12 rebounds, 6 blocks? If people weren’t paying attention to the star before that, they certainly were afterward. Since college though, she has been M.I.C. – Missing In Connecticut.
So the fact that she wasn’t even in the state as the Connecticut Sun took on the Los Angeles Sparks Tuesday in front of 6,515 at the Mohegan Sun Arena, had to sting a little. Parker is expected to miss at least 6 weeks after tearing her meniscus in her left knee, during Sunday’s game against the New York Liberty. She flew home to California on Monday to have an MRI, which confirmed the tear.
Unfortunately for the former Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player, this is not the first time she has dealt with injuries. In fact, her professional career has been marred by them. This is her 4th season in the league and she has only completed one season in its entirety and none healthy. In the previous 2 seasons she has only played 35 of 68 regular-season games.
She was optimistic coming into this season and you could feel that optimism overflowing when I spoke to her last week prior to her latest injury. Her cheerfulness was due to the fact that she felt that Los Angeles had all the pieces to finally be a contender for the championship.
"My first healthy season ever in the WNBA," she said. "It’s amazing to think about, but I felt I needed the break and now I am ready to help my team be a championship contender."
Then with 5:56 left in the 3rd quarter against New York that all changed. For a moment her season was left dangling in the air again. But unlike in high school, there was no torn ACL. The outlook was a little more bearable.
While Parker returned home, Los Angeles continued on its journey to face the Connecticut Sun in one of the most entertaining games of this young season.
Losing even a practice player can change the dynamic of a team. Losing your franchise player and leading scorer and rebounder can alter the course of an entire season.
17.7 points and 9.85 rebounds are hardly easily replaced, however points typically come in the course of the game and can be absorbed by other players. The absence is felt more in offensive flow and shot selection. When your number one option is gone, at times, everyone thinks they are auditioning for the job. Things look choppy and messy.
Los Angeles suffered from that for the first quarter last night. It seemed that in the day off between the injury and the game no one discussed the question of who was their primary option. Six players took more than 2 shots in the first 10 minutes for the Sparks. Los Angeles shot 31.6% to Connecticut’s 52.6% and found themselves down 23-13.
The start of the 2nd quarter was not much better as the Sun came out swinging to lead by as many as 13 points. Then Los Angeles woke up.
The first turning point was the Sun inserting a lineup that I have been vocal about not being the best for offensive productivity. A lineup of Tan White, Kelsey Griffin, Danielle McCray, DeMya Walker and Kara Lawson might be a coach’s dream from a defensive standpoint. But this is still basketball and you still have to put the ball in the basket and those 5 players have the same issue that the Sparks have: without your superstar who is going to take the shot.
It was at this time that Los Angeles realized that it was the most experienced team in the league and started to play like it. They outrebounded the Sun 16 -6 on 10 offensive rebounds. They found the basket and hit big shots. The spotlight belonged to 2 people - one likely, the other improbable.
Kristi Toliver was always supposed to be great. She spent her rookie season in Chicago lost in the mess that was Chicago. But she has shown the last 2 seasons that she can hit big shots when her team needs her and is never afraid to take the shot just like she did at Maryland.
"Kristi played great," Sparks teammate Delisha Milton-Jones said after the game. "She is now on a team that she can showcase her talents and that was always there. But now in this circumstance, she has a chance to shine."
The surprise of the night came from the unlikeliest of sources. LaToya Pringle spent her first 2 years in Phoenix and Minnesota. She had never scored in double figures before and was going against MVP candidate Tina Charles. Render a lot of people surprised including her own coach.
"LaToya Pringle was huge for us tonight, especially in that comeback," said Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom. "It was something that wasn’t expected because she hadn’t been getting a lot of minutes."
Pringle worked her way to a career high with 11 points, 7 in the 2nd quarter where the Sparks roared back to take a lead after being down by as many as 13 points. She was able to work around Tina Charles and Ashja Jones to get to the foul line. When they stood their ground she hit shots over them. It was pretty remarkable for a player who has only appeared in 3 previous games and averaged less than a point a game. Even more impressive was Pringle's 4 offensive rebounds. Her small frame and great length allows for her to sneak in and grab rebounds for players in better position.
Los Angeles was able to get Connecticut back on their heels and by the time their normal starting line up was in the game, it was too late. L.A. had all the confidence in the world and was able to put away any doubts they might have had in their own heads.
The second half was just a knock out, drag out fight with the Sun able to hit more shots and grab a couple more rebounds.
"I’m very positive about this team and about this game even though we lost," said Gillom. "Even without Candace, these players are going to play well. I think they just had to make their adjustments tonight while trying to play without Candace. I’m proud of them. We fought hard and it was a good game. The only difference in the game was the shooting percentage. We cut down on our turnovers, which is something that we have been working on doing, and we rebounded the ball. We just didn’t make the shots when it counted."
The Sparks had a chance to win it primarily based on Toliver’s will. She was everywhere; collecting rebounds, setting up assists and making shots.
Toliver will be a key if Los Angeles is to survive the next 6 weeks. Just in her ability to score. Pringle can’t be expected to get career highs every night but there is a great amount of post depth on that bench that leaves you scratching your head.
"We drew up a lot of plays for her," Gillom said. "We knew that with Candace being out, Kristi is an offensive threat. We knew a lot of the focus would be on Tina (Thompson) and our next go-to player is Kristi. She is a clutch shooter and she can make big shots in big moments and we knew that we could go with her to get back into the game."
Tina Thompson didn’t have a great game. She seemed to be working very hard and the only thing she got for efforts is 7 points, 9 rebounds, 0 assists and a lot of frustration. She seemed bothered by the physical presence of Charles and Jones. She seemed bothered that her team couldn’t get her the ball in a position to do something with it. She seemed bothered by the refs. One game does not a season make, but for this team to be successful without Parker, she will be the key.
Sitting on LA’s bench is a 4- Time College All-American. A 4-year Player of the Year. Render me unimpressed. In the effort of full disclosure, I have never thought that Jantel Lavender was worthy of all of her accolades. The Big Ten is not the SEC or the Big East. The level of competition that she faced was minimal. Put Lavender against someone her own size and strength she disappears. That has been her career thus far. Lavender has the body of someone who you think will excel, but you just watch her on the court and it seems that she would rather be watching a movie or hitting the slots. Lavender has to be a presence in the paint for this team to stop some of the bleeding left by Parker’s absence.
Six weeks is an eternity in a 3 month season. By the time Candace Parker is healthy enough to put on a uniform there might not be a reason to put it on. The Sparks currently sit in the final playoff spot in the West. Behind them is an awakening giant in Phoenix who after an uncharacteristic 0-3 start, won 4 straight before succumbing to the Indiana Fever 91-86 on Tuesday. Ahead of them are all teams that are possibly better than them even with Parker.
Without Parker you are climbing an uphill battle for a team that has not found a way to win on the road never mind without their Shining Star.