LOS ANGELES — The WNBA championship trophy was in the Staples Center on Sunday night ready to be handed to the Los Angeles Sparks if they could win Game 4 of the WNBA Finals and dethrone the Minnesota Lynx, three games to one.
After the Lynx’s 85-79 win, the trophy has been packed back up and is set to head back to Minnesota along with both teams as the 2016 WNBA title will be decided in a winner-take-all Game 5 on Thursday night.
That’s right… Thursday. The teams will have to wait four days before they get to face off for the title. To say both teams will be itching to get back on the court with the title on the line would be an understatement.
“I think everyone was kind of anxious, in a good way,” said Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike following the Game 4 loss. “I think everyone was ready to play finally, and I say finally because even that day in between feels like 48 hours.”
If one day between games felt like 48 hours, the next four days are going to feel like an eternity for the Sparks, who will replay Game 4 over and over in their heads and think about the missed opportunity they had sitting in front of them on Sunday.
“We’ll replay this game in our minds tonight and just know that we have to play with a little bit more poise down the stretch,” said Sparks point guard Kristi Toliver, who had 15 points, including 4-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc. “We have to be aggressive, assertive, decisive, and I think that in those last 1:30, we weren’t that, and that’s going to be the difference because Game 5 is going to be exactly like Game 4. It’s going to be a dogfight. It’s going to be up-and-down.”
The word “poise” was heard many times in the press conference room following the game. Sparks coach Brian Agler said it five times when describing how his team fell short with a chance to clinch the title on its home floor.
“The game was in the balance there with under two or three minutes, so we had opportunities, it’s just the ability to play with poise down the stretch,” said Agler. “I couldn’t be more proud of how we competed. Now we’ve got to partner that with poise and execution.”
After trailing by as many as 10 points, the Sparks rallied back to tie the game at 69 with 6:01 to play on a beautiful left-handed driving bank shot by Candace Parker, who finished with 14 points on 4-of-14 shooting for the game.
But the Sparks were unable to overtake the Lynx, who had an answer for every Sparks burst. Most of those answers came from Maya Moore, who finished with 31 points, nine rebounds and five assists in her best performance of these Finals.
Minnesota responded to the tie game with a 6-0 spurt over the next two-plus minutes to keep the Sparks at bay once again. The Sparks closed the gap to two points three times in the game’s final minutes, but were unable to tie or regain the lead.
Down two with 1:11 to play, the Sparks grabbed a defensive rebound after misses by Rebekkah Brunson and Sylvia Fowles and broke out in transition looking to tie or go ahead. Instead of settling down and running a play, Toliver raced up the court and pulled up from the top of a key for a quick 3-pointer that missed badly wide right.
After Ogwumike got a steal from Whalen with 43 seconds to play, the Sparks gave the ball right back as Parker lost the ball off her foot while trying to make a move in the paint with 24.9 seconds remaining. What followed is a sequence the Sparks will have on their mind for the next few days.
“Down the stretch we turned the ball over on a couple possessions and that hurt us,” said Parker.
In securing the possession after the Parker turnover, Minnesota’s Lindsay Whalen went to the floor in the backcourt, was swarmed by Sparks and passed out to Seimone Augustus, who took two dribbles before passing the ball over the half-court line to avoid an eight-second violation.
“Absolutely not,” said Toliver when asked if the Lynx got the ball over in time. “I mean, I thought we were very aggressive. They were moving the ball. I think they forgot they had to get the ball across the line, and from my point of view, I feel pretty confident that they didn’t get it across. But that’s life. You have to kind of roll with it. We can’t leave it up to the officials to determine a series. We have to go take it, and that’s what we plan on doing in Game 5.”
The end result of that play was a Parker foul on Brunson that the Sparks also disputed, but sent the Lynx forward to the free throw line to put Minnesota back up by two possessions with 12.5 to play. L.A. cut it to two points one final time, but the Lynx closed the game by making their free throws to secure the win.
As close as things were down the stretch, Parker said the Sparks lost the game long before that by allowing the Lynx to once again win the rebounding battle, 41-25 overall and 14-8 on the offensive glass.
“They killed us on the boards and second-chance points,” Parker said. “I had three rebounds. There’s a lot of things that we could have done better and we should’ve, but we were still in the game at the end and we just have to make plays.
“There’s no excuse for me to have three rebounds in a game,” she added. “That’s what it comes down to — they had extra possessions. We played them even in the second half, but in the first half they outscored us from the free throw line and from second-chance points.”
After the game, the Sparks headed back to their locker room, which had a somber mood to it as the team knew it had missed its first opportunity to win a championship.
“It’s not over. We have one more game and we have an opportunity to get better, we have an opportunity to look at tape, we have an opportunity to … do this,” said the ever-positive Ogwumike. “Yeah, that’s how I’m looking at it. It’s tough because we wanted to win here, but we have one more game.”
Sparks co-owner and Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson addressed the team after the game to offer his encouragement and share his perspective having won five NBA championships in his 13-year career.
“Magic came in and spoke with us,” said Ogwumike, who would not disclose any details of the discussion. “He kind of gave us a bit of a perspective. He let us know what he saw, what he thinks we need to do and he gave us some anecdotes for us to relate to.”
Between Magic and Kobe Bryant, who was also in attendance with his family, there were plenty of championship rings in the building on Sunday night. But for the Sparks to earn their championship rings, they’ll need to take care of business in Minnesota on Thursday.
“We’re disappointed, but we’re a team that’s always done things the hard way, so this is no different,” said Parker. “Obviously we put ourselves in a good position to close out at home and we weren’t able to get it done.”
The Sparks’ most impressive games of these playoffs — Game 4 against Chicago in the Semifinals and Game 3 against Minnesota in the Finals – have come after disappointing losses.
Now the Sparks have 93 hours for Sunday’s loss to simmer before they take the court again with the championship on the line for both teams. Someone is getting the WNBA championship trophy on Thursday night. Can the Sparks cash in on their second opportunity to claim the crown and dethrone the Lynx?