UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Candace Parker came alive in the second half to rally the West to a 102-98 come-from-behind victory over the East and earn Most Valuable Player honors Saturday at the 2013 WNBA All-Star Game in Uncasville, Conn.
The accolade was a long time in coming for the six-year veteran from the Los Angeles Sparks. Saturday’s game marked the second All-Star selection but only the first appearance for the 2008 WNBA No. 1 Draft pick, Rookie of the Year and regular-season MVP. She had been chosen by fans as an All-Star starter in 2011, but was unable to play due to injury, and had not yet returned from pregnancy in time for the 2009 All-Star voting. The annual All-Star Games were not held in 2008 and 2012, due to the Olympic break, though Parker, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, did appear for USA Basketball in the 2010 All-Star substitute and national team warm-up for the Women’s World Championships dubbed “The Stars at the Sun,” pitting U.S. national team members against players selected by fans from among the rest of the WNBA.
Still, when the final buzzer sounded with the West on top, there was little doubt about who had made the game-changing difference and would walk away with this year’s All-Star MVP honor. Parker put up an All-Star Game-record 23 points, all but six of them in the second half, on 10-of-13 (76.9 percent) shooting (her 10 made field goals also an All-Star Game record), made it a double-double with 11 boards, also a game-high (tied with West teammate Rebekkah Brunson of the Minnesota Lynx, who also double-doubled with 11 points), and dished out three assists in her 27 minutes on the floor.
“This was my first All-Star Game and I didn’t know quite what to expect,” said Parker afterward. “I’ve never been to a professional All-Star Game, even in the NBA, so it was really special to be here with all these great players and share stories with these great players in the locker room. It think that is the most important thing and I will remember those moments even more than the ones on the court.”
Parker got plenty of help from Sparks’ teammate Kristi Toliver, who poured in 21 points in her own first All-Star appearance, unleashing a hail of 3-pointers that changed the momentum of the game in the second half. All three of Toliver’s triples came in the third period when the East was threatening to run away with the game.
“Coach Reeve was just like Coach Ross,” Toliver, 2012’s Most Improved Player, told Full Court as the three Los Angeles teammates (in addition to Parker and Toliver, last season’s Rookie of the Year Nneka Ogwumike also made her inaugural All-Star appearance) hurried to catch their plane back to the West Coast. “She kept telling me to shoot the ball. And my teammates needed me to shoot the ball. So that’s what I did. I kept shooting.”
Shoot she did, finishing an impressive eight of 13 (61.5 percent) from the field, three of six (50 percent) from beyond the arc and two-for-two from the foul line.
Parker had high praise for her teammate. “I see it every day, and she is one of the best shooters ever. I was proud of the way she came out. She played within herself, she played with the team, she represented L.A. and the West well, and she has that comeback mentality. A lot of people overlooked her early in her career and I am proud that she continued to work and I am proud that she is on my team.”
In total, five Western Conference players finished in double figures with the Minnesota Lynx’ Maya Moore (14, plus five boards and three assists) and Seimone Augustus (12, plus four rebounds and one assist), joining Parker, Toliver and Brunson in double digits.
The East led much of the way, carrying a six-point advantage into the half and expanding that edge to a high of 11 in the early seconds of the third period after coming out of the locker room on fire with a layup, a steal, and an Epiphanny Prince 3-pointer in a 10-second span that seemed to set the West on their heels. Throughout the game, the East enjoyed a more balanced scoring effort, though in the end, they too finished with five double-digit scorers, led by Washington Mystics guard Ivory Latta and the Chicago Sky’s Prince, who finished with 15 points each, both of them knocking down four apiece from long range, in what was the first All-Star appearance for Latta and the second for Prince. Atlanta’s Erika de Souza added 13, plus eight rebounds and four assists; Dream teammate Angel McCoughtry contributed 11, several of them off twisting, soaring crowd-pleasers, plus eight rebounds; and the Connecticut Sun’s Tina Charles, the reigning MVP who was added to the East All-Star lineup at the last minute as a substitute for top vote-getter Elena Delle Donne (Chicago Sky), who was unable to play due to a concussion, pleased the home fans and showed why she belonged by chipping in with 10 points and seven boards.
“This was a great 2013 All-Star Game, especially for me because it was my first time,” said Latta. “It was a dream come true and a blessing. I had a great time out there tonight. I was a little disappointed we didn’t get the win, but I understand and they were out there trapping us, trapping our posts and trapping me, but that is all right. I still had fun.”
If Latta’s remarks suggest that defense was an unexpected phenomenon in this game, she would be right on the money. For most of the first three quarters, there was very little defense in evidence by either side, as both teams exploited a virtual open door to the paint. West coach Cheryl Reeve, whose bright orange pantsuit was a near-perfect color match with the West uniforms, denied that there had been any express discussion of minimizing post contact. “I heard no conversations about post defense when we were as a group; I heard no conversations of worry about injuries.” (All-Star injuries are a matter of no small concern – in 2003, for example, Los Angeles lost marquee player and three-time All-Star MVP Lisa Leslie for 11 games after she went down hard at the All-Star event.)
Still, even Reeve conceded: “It is a successful weekend when everyone gets to go home healthy, so we were thankful for that and [I] think everyone had great fun.”
East coach Lin Dunn, who was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend, was more forthcoming about the absence of the vigorous defense for which she and her teams have long been known. It gave her fits, she said, admitting that during one timeout, when she was about to go off on her squad about the lack of box-outs and defensive effort, her assistants had to rein her in, reminding her that this was the nature of an All-Star affair. “I toned it down [in the huddle],” she joked.
But the change in the momentum of the game was due less to a slightly stepped-up defensive effort by the West than to the agreement of the players to put the ball in the hands of the players who were hot. Throughout the first half, the West struggled to get Seattle’s Tina Thompson on the scoreboard. Thompson, the league’s only 17-year veteran, was making her record ninth WNBA All-Star appearance as a substitute for the injured Brittney Griner and has said that this season will be her last. The WNBA’s all-time scoring leader showed she still has the stuff as recently as Thursday when she laid 23 points on Parker and the Sparks on their own home court. But not today. Thompson was the only All-Star who did not score, finishing an embarrassing zero for six in today’s game, though her teammates did everything they could to set her up for a shot short of putting her on Parker’s shoulders so she could just drop the ball through the hoop.
It was also an off-day for six-time All-Star Diana Taurasi (Phoenix Mercury), who currently leads the league in scoring, ranks second in league history in points per game (20.7) and sixth in total points (5,916). A former Connecticut Husky, Taurasi received by far the loudest ovation on being introduced to the crowd, but as the game progressed and she managed to net only three points on a disappointing one of five from the field, she was beginning to hear taunts of “air ball” descending from the rafters.
Reeve was determined to make sure each of her players got their minutes, but finally, to their infinite credit, both Thompson and Taurasi said “enough.” When Reeve tried to send them back into the game in the second half, both of them told her no.
“All along we had a plan for Tina to make sure that she went out in the best way possible,” explained Reeve. “I have so much respect for her. We had plans to get her in sooner, I turned and asked her to go back in there, and she said, ‘No, coach. They’re rolling. Let’s let them go.’ And that speaks to Tina Thompson.“
Reeve did insert Thompson in the game’s final seconds to an ovation well-earned by her performance over the years. “I spoke to her about going in for one last spot on the floor and I know she appreciated the heck out of that,” said Reeve. “I hope that fans appreciate what Tina Thompson has done for our game because she has been tremendous.”
Taurasi echoed the sentiment. “Nobody deserves it more than Tina. I have been on teams where she was the best player in the world a lot of times. Overlooked a little bit by the outside world because she always played with so many stars or outgoing personalities, but I always say that Tina was the best player I have ever played with, hands down.”
Still, on the whole, it was a day for the league’s youngsters to shine. True, the Three to See – highly touted 2013 draft picks Griner (Phoenix Mercury), Delle Donne (Chicago Sky) and Skylar Diggins (Tulsa Shock) – would not be seen as All-Stars this year, with Griner and Delle Donne both sitting out due to injuries after being selected by the fans as starters and Diggins failing to make the cut. (Griner did show up in uniform, and did a first-class job of cheering on her teammates and encouraging the crowd to get into the game.)
But their absence had little effect, if any, on attendance. Though a sprinkling of empty seats could be found scattered throughout the Mohegan Sun Arena, which is a perfect size for women’s basketball, the stated attendance of 9,323 was recorded as a sellout.
The enthusiasm of that crowd was rewarded as Parker and Toliver, Moore and Augustus, McCoughtry and Latta, Prince and Charles – the future of the league -- gave them what they wanted to see: a fast-paced, high-scoring game with plenty of sizzle, including behind-the-back passes, showy crossovers, acrobatic jumpers and long-range sharpshooting.
And at the end of the day, while the game might not have been a study in fundamental basketball, it was a surefire success for both teams. As Dunn put it, “We had five goals going into this game.” She ticked them off: “The first goal was to showcase our game, the second was for every player to contribute and have quality minutes, the third was to have fun, the fourth was to have nobody get injured. And, oh yeah, the fifth was to win. We got four out of five. .. It’s an All-Star Game, we have these All-Stars and they need to play, contribute and have fun.”