It’s as simple as this. The Los Angeles Sparks are in control of their quest to win a second consecutive WNBA Championship.
The Sparks defense put a choke-hold on Minnesota at Staples Center Friday night, using a suffocating defensive effort to hold the Lynx to a postseason-low scoring output in a 75-64 win in a pivotal Game 3.
Los Angeles, a team that has won 19 of its 20 home games this season, is one more win away from becoming the first WNBA team to repeat as champions since they did it 16 years ago.
Now the Sparks have to do the hard thing, the thing they couldn’t do last year.
They need to try to close this series out on Sunday in Los Angeles, to withstand the pressure of having the trophy in the building, and win a title in front of their home crowd.
Last year, the Sparks came into Game 4 in this same series, against this same team, in this same position.
The margin for error in this heavyweight battle is slim and Los Angeles knows it.
Had Maya Moore not gotten in early foul trouble, had Seimone Augustus or Lindsay Whalen had something close to more typical games, the Sparks might be the team with their back against the wall heading into Sunday.
This win was about the defensive effort that Los Angeles knew it needed to have. It wasn’t a pretty game – both teams turned the ball over 15 times. Play was ragged at times. But Los Angeles, who never trailed in the game, ratcheted up the defensive pressure and made sure that the Lynx couldn’t do what they do best.
“We wanted to come out as aggressive as we did in the first game, and we did, and we sustained it and that was most important,” said Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike immediately after the game, sporting a bandage under her right eye after contact with Fowles under the basket late in the game.
The defensive job that Los Angeles did was complete and effective.
Moore was 6-for-9 from the floor, all 16 of her points coming in the second half.
MVP Sylvia Fowles finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Fowles was 7-for-9 from the field, and the Sparks clearly limited her touches.
Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen were a combined 0-for-6 from the floor. Both were scorless to finish, the first time Augustus has ever been scoreless in a playoff game.
Rebekkah Brunson finished with six points and two rebounds.
“We were able to get stops on the defensive end. They are a great team,” Parker said after the game. “They hit some big shots down the stretch. We just wanted to make things tough for the big-time players. We didn’t let them get a lot of second-chance opportunities.”
The Lynx got a bench boost from reserve guards Renee Montgomery (12 points) and Alexis Jones (9 points), but there is no question that the core of the Minnesota lineup needs to do more if they want to become the first team since the Houston Comets to win four WNBA titles.
Cheryl Reeve’s frustration was evident after the game.
“It’s hard to win a WNBA Finals game without your star players,” Reeve said. “Our starters didn’t compete in the way that we had hoped that we would start the game. L.A. set the tone on those guys, and we just couldn’t get responses from them.”
Even while Candace Parker struggled from the field – going 4-for-13 from the floor, she contributed in every other conceivable way with seven rebounds, five assists, five steals and three blocks. The Sparks got a balanced offensive output, with 16 points each from Ogwumike and Odyssey Sims, 14 points from Chelsea Gray as a follow-up for her game-winning performance in Game 2, and 13 from Parker.
And Los Angeles found enough groove to end the game on a 17-7 run after Minnesota pulled within two points with five minutes left in the game.
The Lynx face a must-win on Sunday. They cannot afford a slow start – like they have gotten in two of the three games of this series. They can’t afford excessive turnovers, or for their star players to have an off-night.
It’s all going to be on the table in Los Angeles Sunday night.
“Obviously, there’s a been a team that the team that punches first seems to set the tone for the game,” Moore said. “So of course, we want to set the tone for the game. But the next game is do or die, so I’m sure we’re going to have to be playing like our season is on the line.”
This time last year, the Lynx were able to stretch the series and bring it back to Minnesota before they had to watch Los Angeles celebrate a title on their home floor. They have to play better if they want a chance to write a different ending.
It’s as simple as that.