ROSEMONT, Ill. -- She scored her 29 points Tuesday night as she usually does, any way she could, any way that was necessary: 6 of 10 from the field, 3 of 3 from the 3-point line and 14 of 15 from the foul line.
But it was that final shot, the one she took her time on, measured and let soar from 25 feet with 1 minute, 10 seconds left in the Sparks' decisive Game 4 of the WNBA semifinals, that made Candace Parker smile.
The Sparks' victory was a foregone conclusion by then, the 3-pointer extending Los Angeles' lead to 20 en route to a 95-75 victory over Chicago. But for the nine-year WNBA vet and two-time league MVP, it was a "long time coming."
"My rookie year, I came in and we went straight to the conference finals and we were like a Sophia [Young] falling-out-of-bounds bank shot away from getting to the Finals," Parker recalled of L.A.'s 2008 loss to San Antonio to force a decisive Game 3 in a series won by the Silver Stars. "And of course, you're young and you think, 'Oh, we'll be back next year.' ... Then you look up and it's eight years later.
"So just for me, I really appreciate this. I appreciate it more so having been through the journey that we've been through."
The Sparks' journey continues with the franchise's third trip to the WNBA Finals but first since 2003 as they advance to meet Minnesota, a finalist in five of the past six years and the defending WNBA champion. The Lynx won the season series 2-1, with each team winning on the others' home court. Two of three games were decided by three points.
"I don't like to call it a rivalry until we hold up our end of the bargain and make it that," Parker said. "Obviously, they've been there, they're experienced, they know what it takes to win a championship, and this is our first time. So we have a lot to learn and we have to learn it fast."
The Sparks were quick learners after Sunday's Game 3 loss -- their first in six games against the Sky this season -- in which the Sky virtually shut down the L.A. offense with a zone defense that held the normally high-powered Sparks to 66 points.
Parker had nine points in the first half Sunday and was held scoreless in the second as the Sky turned the game with a 19-8 third quarter. Tuesday, the Sparks again were staggered with a 28-14 third quarter. But a 28-point first-half lead coupled with a strong finish led by Parker's 15 fourth-quarter points -- including 9 of 9 from the foul line -- kept the Sky no closer than eight points early in the final period.
"We just countered it with movement. A lot of times you can get stuck literally without moving the ball and bodies against the zone," said Nneka Ogwumike, who finished with 17 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocked shots. "I also think we did a much better job with our on-ball defense."
Kristi Toliver was also instrumental for the Sparks with 21 points on a perfect 5-for-5 night -- four coming from beyond the arc -- along with five steals and four assists.
The Sky deserve praise for their fight, persevering despite numerous injuries this season, most notably the one that kept former MVP and Olympian Elena Delle Donne out of the playoffs because of a thumb injury.
"We got off to a slow start ..." said coach Pokey Chatman, whose Sky trailed by 12 at the end of the first quarter. "Obviously L.A. had a sense of urgency and aggression. But I will say I'm proud of the way we fought back."
It was Chatman who warned early in the season that the rest of the league better watch out for Parker after she was shockingly left off the U.S. Olympic team.
"I think the Olympic situation was probably a little bit of motivation for her," Chatman said, "but Candace is an MVP-type player her entire career."
Parker downplayed any personal storylines, including how the loss of college coach and mentor Pat Summitt has impacted her. Sparks coach Brian Agler said Parker has endured an "emotional year."
"For two things like that to occur during the course of your season is very difficult," Agler said. "But she stayed the course. She accepted the decisions made in regard to the Olympic team. She made her way to Knoxville to say her goodbyes to Coach Summitt. She went back to Knoxville to be a part of all the ceremonies there to honor Coach Summitt's life. It was important to her.
"But she hardly missed anything in regard to practice and games. ... We all know Candace is one of the best in the world and she's had a great year and a great playoff."
At the end, her teammates waited not so patiently for Parker to finish her TV interview before rushing a Finals T-shirt to their leader in a joyous mosh pit. She had won in her hometown, a half-hour from where she grew up and led her high school team to two straight state titles.
"It was great to do it in Chicago where it all started, where I first picked up a basketball," Parker said. "... It's really special to do it anywhere but especially in front of my family and friends."
Beyond that, you weren't going to get Parker or Ogwumike to wax poetic. Not yet.
"It's sweet for me because this franchise is competing for a championship," Parker said, "and this is what my goal was back in '08 when I was drafted, to be in this situation and compete.
"I don't think either of us [Parker or Ogwumike] have to prove anything else individually in our careers. But can we win an WNBA championship? That's all we wanted to prove this year."