MINNEAPOLIS – Game 1 of the 2017 WNBA Finals gave fans yet another photo finish from the Lynx and Sparks, whose games you now almost expect to be decided by who has the ball in their hands for the final possession.
Making the action all the more thrilling was the fact that the stars came to play for both squads.
27 points from Maya Moore. 15 points, 12 rebounds and four assists for Candace Parker. Sylvia Fowles kept her proclivity for double-doubles going with 22 points and 13 boards. Seimone Augustus dropped 12 of her 19 points in quick succession in the second half while Nneka Ogwumike’s 10th and 11th point came in dramatic fashion with 26 seconds left in the 4th quarter to give L.A. a late lead.
These performances were expected though. While you need your top players to continue their high-level of play, so often in series’ when the teams are as even as the Sparks and Lynx, the games are decided by the players whose jerseys you may not see scattered throughout the crowd, and who do not play big minutes on a regular basis.
For the Lynx, Jia Perkins made it clear she was going to be this player in the 2017 Finals.
Perkins’ story begins all the way back in 2004 as the fourth to last player drafted in the ’04 class. As the 35th pick she was selected long after players she now shares the Finals floor with in Alana Beard (2nd), Lindsay Whalen (4th) and Rebekkah Brunson (10th).
The Texas Tech product took until her fourth year to score in double figures and her sixth until she was selected to an All-Star team. Through the first 12 years of her WNBA career Perkins had played in just seven postseason games, and had yet to win a postseason series. That all changed when she was dealt to the Lynx prior to the 2016 season.
Via The Pioneer Press:
In her first year donning the Lynx jersey, a then 34-year-old Perkins found her do-it-all mentality could mesh nicely with the championship roster already in place in Minnesota.
She finally advanced past the first round last season and experienced the Lynx’s heartbreaking loss in Game 5 firsthand in her first taste of the WNBA Finals.
Now, after waiting 12 years to even get past the first round she’s back playing in her second consecutive WNBA Finals. Sunday night, she made a serious case for why she may be the key to a fourth Lynx title in franchise history.
Playing the role of sixth woman, Perkins played 28 key minutes for Minnesota as they came storming back from what was a 26-point deficit at one point to take the lead with 6.5 seconds left in the 4th quarter and almost stealing a historic comeback win if not for Chelsea Gray.
While players like Moore, Fowles and Augustus did most of the scoring during the comeback, it was Perkins’ relentless effort on both sides of the ball that provided the emotional spark the Lynx needed to claw their way back into proceedings on Sunday.
“Jia came in and played great,” Augustus said Monday. “That was something I think coach just wanted to find a sparkplug and she did a great job of just coming in, playing solid defense and giving us points on the other end as far as pushing the ball, pushing the tempo transition-wise.”
Perkins played the role of sparkplug to perfection. When she entered the contest at 3:59 in the first quarter she immediately started to bother Chelsea Gray and Odyssey Sims who up to that point were getting clean looks and attacking the rim at will for L.A.
“Being a bench player that’s what you’re supposed to do,” Perkins said during media availability on Monday. “I just tried to make an impact and bring some energy off the bench. That’s the kind of mentality I’ve had whenever I’m coming off the bench this season.”
Her impact was gritty and hard-fought throughout. Perkins had only played an average of 14 minutes a game in Minnesota’s 3-0 semifinal series defeat of the Mystics. Her impact on Sunday forced head coach Cheryl Reeve to keep Jia in the game for 28, the most she’s played since August 3rd.
Although the Lynx didn’t get the win, Perkins, more than any other of the Lynx’s role players, left her mark on Game 1. She finished with six points, five rebounds, three assists, and two steals. It’s the kind of stat line that if one bounce goes Minnesota’s way you look back and say that she was the subtle difference that allowed the Lynx to win this game.
While her six points were crucial, it was the five rebounds, all of them defensive, and two steals that proved Perkins contribution on the defensive end is something that L.A. cannot take for granted this series.
“I’ve been playing defense since second grade,” Perkins said Monday. “It’s one of the things I take pride in even when I’m scoring because I don’t really like to get scored on myself. If it means coming in and picking up full court or whatever I can do to help, I’m just going to be a pest out there.”
It certainly looked like something she’s taken pride and perfected since second grade, more importantly it was exactly the kind of edge the Lynx need in this series. The scores are going to be tight and the superstars are going to show up, it’s going to be less heralded little moments here or there that either give Minnesota their fourth title in seven years or allows the Sparks to be the first team to go back-to-back since they did it in 2001-2002.
There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding just what Perkins’ role will be on Tuesday in Game 2, but no matter how many minutes number seven is on the floor, she’ll be doing what she’s always done, giving that extra effort that’s allowed her to play 14 years in the WNBA.
“She was great, she was really unbelievable,” Lindsay Whalen said when asked about Perkins’ impact on Sunday. “She provided a spark, she hit jumpers in the second half that really got us started momentum-wise and was incredible defensively in the first half. Jia’s just Jia – she’s always going to do that, we know that she’ll be ready to go tomorrow night.”
With a win tomorrow Perkins and the Lynx can tie the series at one apiece as the teams head back to L.A. For Perkins, a player who may be facing her last chance at hoisting a WNBA championship trophy, Tuesday means everything.
“We need this tomorrow,” she said. “Tomorrow we have to be that desperate team that comes out from the start and keeps on punching and doesn’t give in.”
If Perkins’ passion on Sunday was any indication of what’s to come, the Lynx may have found a player who can ignite the necessary fuse that burns within every championship team.