LOS ANGELES – With 1:58 to play in the first quarter, Candace Parker took a pass from Alana Beard in the lane, turned over her left shoulder and lofted a hook shot over Natasha Howard that fell through the hoop to give the Sparks a 30-8 lead and essentially a first-quarter knockout.
Some of the numbers following the first eight minutes of Friday’s game are just staggering:
“I felt like the first quarter was the gut punch,” said Nneka Ogwumike after the Sparks’ completed a 92-75 rout of the defending champions in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals. “We didn’t want to give them any hope. I told Candace at halftime, they get no leads this whole game.”
“Everybody across the board, we came out with a fight, we came out with a desire, we came out with a purpose and we didn’t do that in Game 2,” said Parker.
There were so many words being thrown around after the game to try to accurately describe the effort put forth by the Sparks to open Game 3 that it was as if a thesaurus was being passed around to the players and coaches so they wouldn’t say the same thing.
Whether you choose to go with relentless, persistent, aggressive, attacking or determined, you would be correct. The Sparks opened this game playing at as high a level as they had this season.
“Its nothing that we haven’t seen in the season, but I would say tonight is reminiscent of how our first 20 games were,” said Ogwumike. “The aggression is obscene at this point and we want to keep it that way.”
The Sparks hounded the Lynx on defense as they forced turnover after turnover to create easy transition opportunities on offense. And even when they had to settle into a half-court set, their mindset remained the same.
“We had a game plan of just going to the basket and trying to be aggressive,” said Parker.
In the first minute of the game, the Sparks constantly challenge Sylvia Fowles at the rim and the Defensive Player of the Year responded with three of her five blocked shots coming in the game’s first 59 seconds.
But the Sparks were not going to be denied. They were not going to be intimidated and settle for outside shots like they did in Game 2. They were going to continue to attack the basket and dictate the action on both ends of the floor.
“In the first quarter, it was just a relentless drive to the hole and often times you really can’t care about, ‘OK someone blocks your shot, just keep going,’” said Ogwumike. “You can’t let that deter you and I think we did a good job of understanding they were going to come out aggressively too and we didn’t really want anyone to get going.”
The Lynx came nowhere close to matching the passion and determination that the Sparks showed early on, much to the chagrin of head coach Cheryl Reeve.
“It’s absolutely all on the want-to of Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker to start the game, and then Carson and Beard throughout the game,” said Reeve. “Their want-to was on 10, which is exactly where you would expect it to be. I’m not sure what we were expecting when we started the game, but it wasn’t that.”
While Parker and Ogwumike did much of the damage – scoring 24 and 21 points, respectively and each grabbing nine rebounds – the Sparks got contributions from up and down their roster, which allowed them to fend off every Lynx attempt to try to chop into the Sparks’ lead.
Game 1 hero Alana Beard once again gave the Sparks an offensive punch to go along with her usual outstanding perimeter defense. She finished with 15 points and a game-high seven assists to go with two steals and a block. Meanwhile, Essence Carson added 16 points and shot a perfect 4-of-4 from beyond the arc.
“It was huge,” said Kristi Toliver of the contributions of Beard and Carson. “E has been putting in a lot of work on her jumpshot, before and after practices, days off, so its good to see her reap the benefit of her hard work. And AB is just being aggressive.
“We told both of them: ‘They’re not guarding you so you have to make them pay.’ And today they both were able to deliver and we’re going to need that again on Sunday.”
“I’m in an aggressive mindset, in attack mode,” said Beard. “Everyone on this team is in attack mode right now, so we take things as they come.”
Toliver was the only Sparks starter to not reach double figures in scoring and that was perfectly fine for the shooter-turned-point guard.
“It makes me feel like I did the job today and that’s the difference between Game 2 and Game 3,” she said. “That’s why I went back and watched a lot of film because it’s my job to put guys in the right positions. And we helped ourselves. We came out of the gates extremely aggressive on the defensive end so we were able to get what we wanted on the offensive end and guys were able to knock down shots and play with a lot of confidence and a lot of will to win.”
After having their energy and effort questioned following their Game 2 loss in Minnesota, the Sparks responded with resounding wins in all of the hustle plays. After being outrebounded by 22 boards through the first two games of the Finals, the Sparks won the rebounding battle 29-24 on Friday, including an 11-5 edge on the offensive glass. The Sparks converted those offensive boards into 14 second-chance points and took full advantage of the Minnesota’s 13 turnovers by translating them into 24 points.
“I don’t think there’s much to explain other than what you saw,” said Minnesota’s Maya Moore after the game. “You know, when you have such a long, aggressive, athletic team as L.A., we have to be able to respond and anticipate ways to get out of their pressure because they converted those turnovers into fast break points, transition, easy points, where we can’t even give our defense a chance to stop them.
“Obviously we can’t respond the way we did in the first quarter for any more time in this series because they’re extremely good at converting those turnovers into points.”
The Sparks are now just one win away from their first title since 2002 and the first title for every member of this roster. Can the Sparks replicate what they did Friday night one more time as they try to close out this series on Sunday at Staples Center?
“We are in control of how aggressive we are, how persistent we are, how bad we want it,” said Toliver. “And if we want it bad enough we’ll do the right things.”