- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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In the moments after the final game of the 2012 WNBA regular season, Candace Parker stood in the hallway outside the Sparks' locker room at the Staples Center wearing a Sparks T-shirt with a towel around her waist after climbing out of the ice bath.
With a slight shiver and goose bumps on her arms, Parker talked about how it felt -- for the first time since she was a rookie in 2008 -- to play a complete WNBA season.
Actually, she talked after she leaned over and rapped her knuckles on the wood-paneled wall. Never can be too careful.
"It feels great," Parker said, teeth chattering just a little.
In 2009, Parker missed the first eight games of the season after giving birth, then led her team to the Western Conference finals. In 2010, she missed all but 10 games with a shoulder injury. In 2011, she played only 17 games after going out with a torn meniscus in her right knee.
After all that, Parker has played 119 games in her five-year WNBA career.
But 2012 has been a start-to-finish success and a testament to Parker's extraordinary talent. As a reward for her outstanding play and leadership, Parker is back in the WNBA playoffs, scoring 15 of her 25 points in the final 11 minutes of Thursday's Game 1 victory over San Antonio.
Parker last played a postseason game in the 2009 Western Conference finals. She badly wants a title to go with the ones she won at Tennessee in 2007 and 2008 with Pat Summitt.
"I've sat at home the last four seasons when it's crunch time to win a championship," Parker said. "To be honest, it sucks. But it prepares you for these moments."
Does that motivate her?
"Definitely," Parker said.
In 2008, when she played the full season as a first-year star out of Tennessee, Parker didn't just win rookie of the year -- she also was named league MVP.
She played like an MVP in large stretches of 2012, as well, especially out of the gate. Parker had six double-doubles in the first eight games, including five games in which she scored at least 20 points. She cooled in the second half, which might have cost her a second MVP award. Connecticut's Tina Charles was named league MVP on Thursday.
Still, it has been a stellar effort. Parker ranks seventh on the regular-season scoring list at 17.4 points a game and third in rebounding at 9.7. She led the league with 76 blocked shots. She finished tied with Charles with 18 double-doubles and scored more than 20 points in 10 games, more than 30 twice.
It's not that Parker has gotten through the season physically unscathed. There are aches and pains, bumps and bruises. And some measure of exhaustion after returning from the London Olympic Games with a gold medal.
Hence, the ice bath.
But Parker has refused offers to rest.
"A lot of the Olympians were taking games off before or after," Sparks coach Carol Ross said. "She wouldn't even consider it. I presented it a couple of times, and she wasn't having it. She worked so hard to be on the court on a day-to-day basis. I really love her sense of, I don't know, obligation or responsibility to this organization and her teammates."
Parker said she was indeed tired after the Olympics.
"Yeah, but everybody was," Parker said. "I've played a lot of games, but I was able to pull through. This is the first year that I've been playing straight through since last October. I haven't had much of a break. It's about getting your rest and taking care of your body."
All the while, she was taking care of an active 3-year-old, Lailaa. Parker's daughter with husband Shelden Williams recently finished a 13-day road trip with her mom and the Sparks.
"I watched her in her role as a wife, a mother, a teammate and the face of this franchise, and she does it all gracefully," Ross said.
Ross appreciates the sentiment behind Parker's wood-knocking. Both are counting on good luck for a few more weeks.
"I hope it's a relief for her because it's been one for me. It's been an albatross around her neck for so long, different things keeping her out," Ross said. "I think it has been great for her to roll out of bed every day and be either coming to a practice or a game and not going to rehab."
For the first time since her rookie season in 2008, Candace Parker has survived the season without a major injury costing her playing time. As the playoffs start, she's hoping there's no rest in the near future.