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Candace Parker thriving, making history as Chicago Sky push to return to WNBA Finals

CHICAGO -- Candace Parker couldn't help but sneak a peek at the tennis match on the TV on her way back to the court at Wintrust Arena. It was halftime of Game 2 of the 2022 WNBA playoff semifinal series between the Chicago Sky and the Connecticut Sun, Parker's Sky were up by 15 points and, much to her delight, Serena Williams had won the first set of her second-round US Open match against the No. 2 player in the world. Parker wouldn't know until after her own game was over -- an 85-77 win in which the two-time WNBA MVP and champion dropped a team-high 22 points -- that Williams eventually pulled out the upset victory in three sets, dazzling sports fans as she kept alive what was likely her final tournament run.

Parker, 36, will be sure to let you know she's a few years younger than the 40-year-old Williams, but the significance of two Mount Rushmore-level athletes playing at such high levels is not lost on her. And while Williams' career seemingly ended in the third round of the Open two days later, Parker is still standing, thriving even, with a chance to further cement her legacy and make history by guiding her Sky to a second consecutive championship, which would make them the first WNBA team to repeat since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001-2002.

Up 2-1 in the best-of-five series, Chicago can clinch its spot in the WNBA Finals with a victory in Game 4 on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2) in Uncasville, Connecticut.

For much of the semifinals, the No. 2 seed Sky have been taken out of their comfort zone by the Sun's physical, "messy" style of play. But they've been able to power through and come away with two consecutive wins, in large part thanks to Parker's standout play against Connecticut and in the playoffs as a whole.

In her second season with the Sky after her prolonged stint in Los Angeles, Parker boasts averages of 16.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.8 blocks and 1.3 steals per game throughout the playoffs, making her the only WNBA player to average 15 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists over a six-game stretch in a single postseason, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

She dominated with 19 points and 18 rebounds in a historic performance in Chicago's Game 1 loss, becoming the first player in WNBA history to record 15 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 blocks in a playoff game while also falling one steal sort of achieving a coveted 5x5 game. In Game 2, Parker's 22 points on efficient 8-for-13 shooting (3-for-4 from 3) also led the team as the Sky's offense got back to its free-flowing identity. And in Game 3, her 16 points and 11 rebounds marked her 27th career playoff double-double, tied with Tamika Catchings for the most in WNBA playoff history.

Parker's defense, not historically the hallmark of her game, has been menacing against Connecticut, which thrives on getting the ball into the paint. The Sun are shooting 14-for-51 (27%) when contested by Parker through the first three games of this series, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Parker recoiled at the idea this is the best she has ever played, saying her younger self was more dominant in the postseason. While Parker might not be putting up the same scoring numbers she did earlier in her career, her rebounding, assist and block averages are all currently among her career-best marks in postseason play.

It's the sort of production that might have seemed unlikely even just a few years ago, when Parker posted a career-worst season in 2019 (11.2 PPG). That was the same summer her peers voted her "most overrated" in an anonymous poll from The Athletic, and when then-Sparks coach Derek Fisher benched her in an elimination playoff game against, coincidentally, the Sun.

"Her fitness and strength and the intangibles that she's added late in her career is impressive," said Sun coach Curt Miller, who was an assistant coach in L.A. in 2015 before taking the reins in Connecticut the following season. "It's not to talk about in '15 she wasn't, but she is really fit and plays with a really high motor and is physical. She doesn't take plays off anymore. And it's impressive to watch and I think it's a big credit to her commitment to fitness, nutrition and strength and conditioning. She looks great."

As she has gotten older, Parker says she has had to change her approach to maintaining her body, especially as injuries hampered her in 2019 and 2021. She doesn't stay on the court for hours before and after games or practices, and treatment and recovery -- via cold tubs, electrical stimulation, acupuncture, even yoga and Pilates -- is of the utmost importance.

But the mental side of the game, Parker said, is what allows the likes of her and Williams to have such great success this late in their careers.

"I think it just talks about the mentality that you have in the game, the mental strength," Parker said after Game 2. "I know you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but we can better our tricks a little bit, and I think the game slows down. Serena, her serve, you don't have to be mobile to serve like she is, you're not returning her serve. So I think it's just working on the things that you're really good at and playing more of that mental game."

Focus on your opponent's tendencies. Figure out strategically how to get to the same spots when your body can't do the things it once could.

"You can still get there, it's just going to be different," Parker said. "I look at guys like [the NBA's Nikola] Jovic and guys that are slower that get to their spots. How do they do that? It's like, really being a master of your matchup, and sometimes it involves slowing down and figuring out what the defense is giving you within a game."

Then comes the necessity of staying mentally engaged, having the discipline to come in and do the same tedious work every day in your preparation. And, perhaps most importantly for the postseason, to understand the moments in games that might ultimately decide whether you win.

It should be no shock, then, that Parker's fingerprints were all over the game-deciding stretch in the Sky's Game 3 win in Uncasville on Sunday. During an extended fourth-quarter stalemate with the Sky up two, Parker came through with 2:38 remaining in the game with a massive block on a DeWanna Bonner layup, which she rebounded and outletted to Allie Quigley. The ensuing Chicago possession ended with a basket from Emma Meesseman that swung the momentum in the Sky's favor for good. Parker later effectively iced the game with a pair of free throws to put Chicago up four with 15 seconds to play.

"She wants to do everything in her power to get another championship, and so that's why I think you see urgency," Sky coach James Wade said. "That urgency comes in the form of not taking plays off and being your best selves at all times and paying attention to your body on off days and putting a lot into your game and into your craft."

Added Meesseman: "She's had so many different great games and even if she's having [worse] stats, she's still doing so many great things on the court, like being a great leader."

Parker prides herself on her growth as a leader -- in being less reactive and more patient, which she notes she picked up in parenting as well -- something she feels has particularly been on display since her arrival in Chicago last summer. More recently, she has been focused on getting the Sky to have the right mindset going into games and to be the ones who set the tone. They didn't have it going into Game 1 of the series, she thought, after noticing they were lax in shootaround and film.

"I want our mentality to be better after a win. I think that's where I'm challenging our team," Parker said. "After a win is when we need to be even more focused and come ready to play."

This could be it for Parker and the Sky. When asked by NBA TV's Kristen Ledlow earlier this year whether she's operating under the assumption 2022 will be her final season, Parker responded, "That is how I'm entering the season. I mean, I don't know, I don't know what the future holds. I know my contract is up after this year. And there will be decisions to be made." Even aside from the Parker retirement question, three other Sky starters -- Courtney Vandersloot, Quigley and Meesseman -- plus sixth woman Azur√° Stevens are all free agents after this season as well.

Parker has long said family considerations will factor into her decision on when to retire. Her wife, Anya Petrakova, and daughter, Lailaa Williams, encouraged her to return for 2022. But Parker has also been consistent in saying she wants to preserve her body so she's able to play with her kids after she steps away from the game. Wednesday after Williams' match, Parker glowed at the sight of Williams' young daughter, Olympia, watching her mom from the stands.

Regardless of whether 2022 is it for her, Parker's mastery and urgency have produced some of her most impactful basketball in years -- and in the process propelled the Sky to just one win away from a return to the Finals, and another three victories from taking home a title.

"I just want to win a championship because I like to win and because this team likes to win," Parker said. "I don't think I have anything else left to prove to myself and to the game. I don't play for that."