SEATTLE -- The Seattle Storm acquired all the players they could before this season to try to end their habit of early playoff exits. They just didn't have the chance to draft Candace Parker.
Los Angeles' dynamic rookie scored 20 points, including a key layup with 2 minutes left, to lead the Sparks into the Western Conference finals with a 71-64 victory over the stunned Storm on Tuesday night.
Seattle was an WNBA-best 16-1 at home in the regular season, then held Los Angeles to a season-low 50 points in a 14-point win in Game 2 on Sunday to force the decisive game.
"Brilliant," Sparks coach Michael Cooper said of Parker.
He would know. Cooper played on the "Showtime" Lakers of the 1980s with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Los Angeles will host San Antonio in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Thursday. The Sparks split four regular-season games with the Silver Stars, with each team winning twice at home.
Parker, still wearing a shoulder brace from an injury she sustained in the NCAA tournament earlier this year, slashed for powerful layups and spun for smooth jump hooks. And she bulled through defenders on the few times she wasn't racing free while going 8-for-13 from the field.
"The first two games I wasn't going through contact. I was expecting to get the foul," said Parker, who had 21 points combined in the first two games of the series. "I worked on powering through contact."
Cooper wasn't surprised.
"Nothing new," he said of the former star at Tennessee. "This young lady played in the NCAA tournament with a dislocated shoulder -- and she got it done then, too."
Veteran leader Lisa Leslie added 15 points then hugged Parker after the final buzzer as the celebration began for the Sparks, who beat Seattle in the first round two years ago in their last postseason appearance.
"I was just not ready to go home," said Leslie, who had a baby in June 2007 and missed last season while the Sparks went 10-24. "I knew we had the better team. It just didn't feel like it was time to lose."
It was for Seattle -- yet again. It is out after one round for the fourth consecutive year.
Tanisha Wright scored 20 points -- 12 above her season average -- Camille Little had 17, and guard Sue Bird added 16, 11 in the second half, for the Storm.
Bird scored 20 points in Game 2. But Shannon Bobbitt and Temeka Johnson hounded her into missing seven of her first 11 shots Tuesday, as Los Angeles built a 61-47 lead early in the fourth quarter. Bird finished 7-for-16.
Seattle gained a final hope when Leslie went to the bench with five fouls and Los Angeles leading 61-51 with 5:43 left. Griffith then made two free throws, Bird made a 3-pointer and a driving layup, the crowd was roaring and suddenly the Storm pulled to 61-58.
After the key layup by Parker, Leslie fouled out on a charge with 2:16 left. Bird's tough runner -- her third consecutive made shot -- made it 65-62, but then turnovers doomed Seattle.
Wright charged into Marie Ferdinand-Harris in the open floor with 1:12 remaining. After Bobbitt missed two free throws for L.A., the Sparks forced Bird into a late pass when she was looking to shoot, and Wright could not get her 3-pointer off before the shot clock expired with 36.9 seconds left.
Through it all superstar Lauren Jackson was relegated to nervous sideline cheerleader. She's recovering from ankle surgery after the Olympics last month.
The Storm, who still haven't gotten past the opening round since winning the championship in 2004, made big changes in the offseason They brought in veterans Sheryl Swoopes, Yolanda Griffith and Swin Cash -- with seven WNBA titles between them -- and changed coaches from Anne Donovan to Brian Agler.
But Griffith, who's had knee and ankle problems, couldn't contain Leslie in the finale. Cash, bothered much of the season by back pain, had just two points in 21 minutes.
And Swoopes, the 37-year-old three-time league MVP recently sidelined by a concussion and 11 months removed from back surgery, missed her first six shots. She didn't make a field goal until 8:07 remained. Seattle was down 61-49 by then. Swoopes finished with three points in 21 minutes.
"It's disappointing. I personally didn't play not just how I wanted to play, but how I needed to play," Swoopes said.
Cooper moved Parker from trailing on fast breaks and at the low post in halfcourt sets, out to a wing to afford her more open space. Parker responded by having 12 points 7 1/2 minutes into the second quarter.
"She's exceptional," Agler said.