MINNEAPOLIS – For 350 days, the memories of Game 5 of the 2016 WNBA Finals haunted Sylvia Fowles. She could not forget the missed defensive rebound and the putback by Nneka Ogwumike that lifted the L.A. Sparks past the Lynx in Minnesota to claim the WNBA title.
After the Lynx were one defensive rebound away from winning the title a year ago, Fowles was not going to let rebounding be the downfall of her team in this year’s rematch with the Sparks.
“If I didn’t do anything else, I just wanted to make it my business to make sure I just go out there and rebound, and that was my downfall last year,” Fowles said after the game. “Like I said, I fell on the court, that haunted me for a long time after Game 5 last year. I just wanted to come in and I wanted to show my presence, and if that was rebounding, then rebounding it was.”
And yes it was.
For the second time this series, Fowles broke the WNBA Finals record for rebounds in a single game as she collected 20 rebounds – including seven on the offensive glass – in Minnesota’s 85-76 win over Los Angeles in Wednesday’s winner-take-all Game 5.
Fowles’ effort helped the Lynx dominate the glass for the second consecutive game of the series and eventually led Minnesota to become the first team to win back-to-back games over the last two Finals between the Sparks and Lynx as Minnesota rallied from a 2-1 series deficit to win the title 3-2.
Sweet Syl finished Game 5 with 17 points, 20 rebounds, four assists, three blocks and two steals to help the Lynx hold off the Sparks in a wire-to-wire win. Fowles finished with a double-double in each game of the Finals and her six consecutive double-doubles – dating back to Minnesota’s semifinal series with Washington – tied Lisa Leslie for the longest double-double streak in playoff history.
Fowles also became just the fourth player in WNBA history to record at least 20 rebounds in a playoff game and the first to do so in the WNBA Finals as she broke her own record of 17 rebounds – set in Game 2 of the series – to give her the top two rebounding performance in Finals history.
The end result was a 46-29 edge on the boards, a nine-point victory, a fourth championship for the franchise and a second Finals MVP award for Fowles after she averaged 17.8 points and 15.0 rebounds over the five-game series.
Fowles became just the fifth player in WNBA history to win the regular season MVP and Finals MVP in the same season and the first to do so since Seattle’s Lauren Jackson in 2010.
“Sometimes I’m looking and she’s like above the rim like grabbing rebounds with three or four people on her,” said Seimone Augustus, who was also a teammate of Fowles for two seasons at LSU. “Rebounding is something you don’t teach, that’s just you want to go in there and make something happen. With her and [Rebekkah] Brunson, every night they give us their bodies, they sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the team.”
While her teammates and coaches heaped praise on Fowles, she was quick to reciprocate it back on them for pushing her to be the best player she could be. In her 10th season, Fowles earned her first regular season Most Valuable Player award – joining Tamika Catching as the only player to win the MVP for the first time in year 10 or later.
There was a concerted effort by Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve, her entire coaching staff and the Lynx players themselves to push Fowles to greatness and ride her all the way to the championship.
“I’m proud of Sylvia,” said Augustus. “I’m just happy that I got a chance to experience her growth and her greatness over the course of the last two years. I’m so proud of her.”
“I mean she’s an amazing player,” added Brunson, who won her record fifth WNBA title on Wednesday. “And I say that with so much respect because I know how difficult it is to come in day in and day out and rebound and be aggressive and defend and do things that probably don’t show up in the stat sheet like getting deflections, boxing other people out, so I think we’re just blessed.”
“We were blessed when she got here and we’re blessed to have her as a teammate. And I’m just proud of her. I’m proud to see the strides that she’s taken since she’s got here. Because she was a great player, but now I feel like she’s the best five in the league now.”
To get Fowles to that point took a lot of work and tough love from Reeve and her staff. During her postgame press conference, Reeve got emotional while discussing Fowles’ transformation from a defensive stalwart to an unstoppable force on both sides of the ball on a nightly basis.
“I just watched Game 5 from last year before this game, and I thought, Sylvia Fowles was awful,” said Reeve. “She was awful in Game 5, and all I thought was, my goodness gracious did we have some success in transforming her into such a dominant presence that put a pressure on their defense like nobody else could.”
It was after last year’s Game 5 that Reeve told Fowles that she needed more from her in the upcoming season. That she needed Fowles to be the dominant force on the team rather than a complementary piece to the core of Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore. She was going to transform Fowles and transform the team right along with it in order to elevate the team to not only get back to the WNBA Finals, but also earn the team’s fourth title to tie the Houston Comets for the most ever.
“It was an unbelievable season, to watch her growth, and how we transformed our team,” said Reeve. “You know, we went from being centered around Lindsay, Seimone and Maya so now it was Syl every single night, and we had to have people that were willing to take less of a role, and they were happy to do it.”
After averaging 15.3 and 13.9 points in her first two seasons in Minnesota, Fowles became the WNBA’s fifth-leading scorer at 18.9 points per game – Fowles’ highest scoring average since the 2011 season. As her offensive game expanded and became more efficient – she shot a league-best 65.5 percent from the field – she maintained her dominance on the glass and continued to be the defensive anchor that earned her three Defensive Player of the Year awards in her career.
Whether it was Reeve or assistants James Wade and Will Hopkins, who spent countless hours with Fowles throughout the season, the coaching staff and the players themselves constantly pushed Fowles to not only be Minnesota’s best player but the best player in the league.
The constant pushing didn’t stop until the final buzzer sounded to end Game 5 with the Lynx back atop the WNBA.
“Honestly I didn’t even know how often I was rebounding so when I did an interview and they said I had 20 rebounds I was like ‘Oh that’s why my knees hurt,” Fowles said with a laugh after the game.
“I was tired the whole time, I just kept looking at Cheryl and I was like giving her the hand [signaling to come out for a rest] and she was looking at me and saying ‘One more minute.’ And I’m like ‘Oh my God I’m about to fall out of here.’ But its little things like that that keeps you motivated and keep you pushing. Because without her and my teammates just riding me every chance that I get I don’t think I’d be motivated to go out there and keep going. But they help me out a lot.”
Reeve often talks about the Lynx playing to their identity and that identity this year was centered on playing around Sylvia Fowles. She wasn’t going to go with small lineups against L.A. in Game 5. She was going to go with the regular season MVP and ride what got the team there to the championship.
“We’ve got to be ourselves because ourselves was good enough to get us here, and if we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down being ourselves, and that was — we were going to center this thing around Sylvia Fowles,” she said. “Rebekkah Brunson was going to do what she’s great at. Lindsay, Seimone, Maya, we’ll get them their touches; they’re going to play off of Syl. And we just made a concerted effort that we were not going to spend another three, four minutes, a quarter, a half, whatever it was, without featuring our MVP.”
Fowles played 37 minutes and 38 seconds in Game 5 – more than any other player on the court. The Lynx featured their MVP throughout Game 5 and in return Fowles put together one of the most dominant performances in league history.
She can get her rest now, having wrapped up what she described as the perfect season as she won her first regular season MVP, her second championship and her second Finals MVP after tasting that bitter defeat just 350 days ago.
“It is the perfect season, and I did not think I’d have this in the 10th year of my career but I surrounded myself with great players and coaches that were understanding and selfless and here I am.”