LOS ANGELES – The WNBA’s Most Valuable Player, Sylvia Fowles, spoke on Saturday about how the Minnesota Lynx needed to let Friday night’s Game 3 loss at Staples Center burn.
It needed to hurt, Fowles said. The Lynx players needed to feel it, and then to use it.
Use it they did. Minnesota, riding the experience of its veteran core and the urgency of their do-or-ride situation, forced a fifth game in this WNBA Finals Series with an impressive 80-69 win over Los Angeles, sending their Sparks to just their second home loss of the season.
This compelling, storyline-rich Finals series heads back to Minnesota for a winner-take-all Game 5 on Wednesday at the University of Minnesota.
It’s a familiar scenario. Last year, Los Angeles had a chance to close out at home in Game 4, lost to Minnesota at Staples to even the series and ended up needing Nneka Ogwumike’s buzzer-beating put-back in Game 5 in Minnesota to claim the title.
“Everyone is going to want to say how eerily similar this was to last season and I guess that’s rightfully so,” said Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve. “But I’m so proud of my team tonight. Only one team had come in here and won a game all season and we knew it was going to be a tall task. Obviously, we were up for it.”
The veteran-laden Lynx kept themselves in position to make history. In fact, either winner on Wednesday is going to make history, becoming the first team since the Houston Comets to win four WNBA titles.
The Sparks, also looking to become the first WNBA team to defend a title since Los Angeles did it in 2001 and 2002, stumbled in their attempt to bring the celebration home again on Sunday night in front of a raucous crowd.
The confetti didn’t fall and the championship trophy went back in the box for shipment to Minnesota. And Los Angeles has the Minnesota Lynx’s dominance on the boards to thank for that.
The Lynx pulled off a 48-28 rebounding advantage, dominated the offensive boards to the tune of 21-5 second-chance points and held the Sparks to their second-lowest scoring output of the season.
Minnesota build a 19-point lead in the second half before Los Angeles was able to cut it to eight on a run led by guard Odyssey Sims. But it was too little too late for the Sparks.
Minnesota was the aggressor from the start, and it showed. The tone was set immediately when Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen fouled Sims hard on a breakaway basket early in the first quarter. Whalen was called for a flagrant foul after the officials’ review and Sims made her free-throw, but the Lynx went on a 33-13 run after that which put them in the driver’s seat.
“We just didn’t want to give them anything easy,” Reeve said.
Reeve said she told her team before the game to forget about what happened in the three previous games leading into Game 4.
“I told them that the only thing that mattered were the 75 possessions we were about to play, that the other games had no bearing on what was about to happen,” Reeve said. “I told them to pour everything into the coming possessions and I thought we did that.”
Veteran forward Rebekkah Brunson, who had a quiet series to this point and struggled in Game 3 in particular, made her presence felt early. Brunson hit early shots, got to the line and crashed the boards. She finished with 18 points and 13 rebounds.
“I absolutely felt like I needed to come out with more energy,” Brunson said.
Reeve called Brunson a “huge part of our identity. When she has played well this season, we have won.”
The entire Lynx team looked like a group playing with something to prove after they were held to a season-low in scoring on Friday night. It was pride time for an experienced team that knows how to take a punch and then counter.
Minnesota nailed down the must-win by going with what they know – rather who they know. It was the veteran foursome of Fowles, Brunson, Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus who led the charge.
Like Brunson, Fowles finished with a double-double of 22 points and 14 rebounds. Moore was good for 15 points, eight rebounds and Augustus, who went scoreless for the first time in her postseason WNBA career on Friday night, atoned with 10 points and eight rebounds. Whalen, who was also scoreless in Game 3 on Friday, finished with four points and eight assists.
“These are my five,” Reeve said. “They are unbelievable leaders, they have confidence and they have a fire in their belly that is second to none and you just follow their lead.”
Los Angeles is left to regroup, re-evaluate and fly to Minnesota knowing exactly what they have to do.
“To compete with Minnesota, you have to stay in the game with them with their rebounding,” Sparks coach Brian Agler. “We didn’t play the way we need to play. When you put yourself in a hole like that, there’s zero room for error. The biggest thing we could have done is not put ourselves in that position.”
Odyssey Sims led the Sparks with 18 points, and Nneka Ogwumike finished with 17 points. Candace Parker added 11 points and eight rebounds.
But the Sparks couldn’t get an offensive groove for much of the game, and they enough defensive stops or headway on the boards to carve down Minnesota’s lead.
“Obviously, I don’t think we had individual players play great games and they had a lot to do with that,” Agler said. “They played a great defensive game. They made it difficult for us. Our offense didn’t flow and we didn’t make great decisions.”
Now it will be the Sparks turn to let a tough loss burn. And to see if, for the second time in as many seasons, they can turn that burn into a championship.
“This year is this year,” Ogwumike said. “This year is a different year. I know that it’s same scenario, and it’s what everyone wants to talk about, but it’s a different year.”