LOS ANGELES – The 2016 WNBA Finals were decided in dramatic fashion. A missed shot by the league’s Most Valuable Player, Nneka Ogwumike, followed by an offensive rebound, a put back, and then a celebration.
Ogwumike’s game-winner sealed the Los Angeles Sparks’ title a year ago over the Minnesota Lynx in the fashion that so many basketball fans root for, a down-to-the-wire game-winning play.
But this 2017 Series, between these same two familiar teams, is becoming a defensive tug-of-war. Suffocating defense on the ball, schemes that take away the other team’s strengths, hustle plays, turnovers – it’s all been there.
The old adage in football has always been “defense wins championships,” but basketball games are usually decided by the team that can set a good scoring pace and hold it to the finish.
But would anyone truly be surprised if this title, pitting the two best defensive teams in the league, was decided not by a big shot, but by a block, a steal or a forced turnover?
“Defense is definitely going to win this championship,” said 2017 MVP Sylvia Fowles.
The first two games of this year’s Finals were games in which one team got off to a slow start under the other team’s stiff pressure and then rallied for a dramatic finish but ultimately came up short.
The Sparks have led the league in postseason defense, allowing just 73.8 points per game in six contests. Minnesota is not far behind, at 77. Minnesota was the WNBA’s defensive leader in the regular season, followed closely by L.A. Both teams have brought great defense into their championship identities.
Friday’s Game 3 saw the Lynx held to their lowest offensive total of the postseason and one of the lowest scoring games of the year.
“L.A.’s defense was so good, their ball pressure was so good, it was so disruptive that it led to our inability to score,” said Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve. “But we had our moments too. Both of these teams are very good defensively. I think it’s going to come down to the collective will. Who is willing to do a little more?”
L.A.’s Alana Beard, the 2017 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, said this title is going to come down to defense and “intangibles.”
“These teams, we know each other so well and we are probably the two most competitive teams the league has seen in a long time, so it’s going to come down to the details,” she said. “It’s beyond X’s and O’s at this point.”
However, Sparks star Candace Parker said there’s more to it than just playing a great defensive game.
“You have got to get stops and you’ve got to get rebounds,” Parker said. “You can play great defense and not get the rebound. But the key for us is staying active and making things hard. You aren’t going to stop everything.”
Minnesota is looking to refocus after the Game 3 loss, in which L.A. was able to go on a 17-7 run down the stretch after the Lynx cut the lead down to a single basket with under five minutes to go.
“I think the word we have used the most during this series is ‘inexplicable,’” Reeve said.
While all indications are that two great defensive teams are going to duel to a physical, tough finish, Minnesota’s Maya Moore isn’t willing to concede the role of the offense just yet.
“Defense will be part of it, but you have to put points on the board in order to win at this point in the season,” Moore said. “That said, we definitely have to play better defense than we’ve played in the first three games.”