MINNEAPOLIS – The Minnesota Lynx’s rabid fan base has a fascinating, and potentially tiring gameday tradition.
The entire arena will remain standing after the national anthem until the Lynx score their first bucket. On Sunday, that meant all the Minnesota fans packed into Williams Arena were on their feet for almost three whole minutes before their team tallied its first points. They were forced to watch L.A. pile on 12 points before Maya Moore hit a fadeaway jumper and the fans could slump back into their seats to contemplate what had just happened.
On Tuesday night, in Game 2 of the Lynx’s sixth Finals appearance in seven seasons, the wait to celebrate a basket by taking your seat only took 32 seconds, as Lindsay Whalen tossed up a crafty reverse layup to start the evening off strong for Minnesota.
The tone was set.
This was not going to be a repeat performance from Game 1, as it was clear from the jump that Minnesota was determined to defend its home court and not leave town in a 2-0 hole.
“After getting chewed out and watching film for about two hours on all the things that we didn’t do right, we just tried to put that at the forefront of our mind about what we needed to do in Game 2,” Sylvia Fowles said postgame. “I went into Game 2 just focused on Game 2 and what was going to [take to] win Game 2. Don’t think about anything else.”
The early catalyst for Minnesota was the aforementioned Whalen, who jumped out to a quick seven points by the 6:40 mark in the first quarter. Never one to conceal her emotions, she was visibly more active on both ends of the floor and looked to be quickly atoning for a difficult Game 1 performance, where she scored a total of five points in the loss.
“Coach had been talking to me yesterday, we talked some last night, we talked this morning just about being aggressive and just coming out and all of us setting the tone,” Whalen said postgame. “I was able to get a couple jumpers to go, get in the lane a little bit, and she was just telling me all night, be aggressive, get in the lane, do your thing, and you know, it worked out.”
That aggressive mentality filtered its way through the psyche of not just Whalen, but the Lynx as a whole. One player who also looked particularly inspired was Rebekkah Brunson, whose Game 1 woes were fully redeemed in Game 2.
On Sunday, Brunson finished with two points on 1-for-6 shooting from the field and a minus-22 in the telling plus-minus stat category. She missed badly on her first shot attempt and never seemed to recover from that glaring mistake as she continued to settle for contested jumpers, something that’s not really a part of her game.
Tuesday was a different story for Minnesota’s calming force at the four. Her first bucket came midway through the first quarter on a tough drive through the lane, and she never looked back. She would finish Game 2 with a well-earned 12 points on 6-for-14 shooting from the field. Her buckets all resembled her first on the evening, as she put the ball on the floor and didn’t settle for what the defender was giving her. She got to the spots she wanted to on the floor and made the most of those scoring opportunities.
“I think it was just energy. I knew that my team needed me to do more and bring more energy. So, I just tried to do that from the beginning to get us off to a good start,” Brunson said postgame.
Moore had nothing but praise for the 35-year-old Brunson, who with a title this season would become the first player in WNBA history with five in her career. “She’s kind of like the glue, the energizer bunny of her team with her defensive effort and the confidence she played with on offense,” Moore said. “She’s someone who’s willing to do whatever it takes, whatever the coaches tell her, whatever we as captains and starters come together and agree on, she’s going to do it with all of her heart. She made some big plays for us.”
Brunson’s impact was also felt defensively, as she is the one primarily tasked with guarding Nneka Ogwumike and even Candace Parker at times. The duo shot a combined 0-for-11 in the first half while Parker also didn’t register a rebound, the first time that’s happened in her storied WNBA career. Brunson’s tenacity and willingness to make things difficult for these former league MVPs is something that cannot go unrecognized.
“She was aggressive. She was assertive,” Coach Reeve said when asked about Brunson’s impact on Game 2. “That’s what we expect from her, to make those kinds of plays in the end. She does the dirty work. I knew that if we won, she was going to be a big part of it, and I thought she was on both ends.”
Another player who left an indelible mark on Game 2 of these Finals was reigning WNBA MVP Sylvia Fowles. Fowles finished with 22 points and ten rebounds in Game 1 but had a difficult start to the game looking uncharacteristically ineffective in the paint at times.
Tuesday, Minnesota’s fans were treated to the kind of two-way production they’ve been accustomed to all year from Fowles as she finished with 13 points and WNBA Finals record 17 rebounds. Syl broke Taj McWilliams-Franklin previous Finals rebound record of 16 set back in 2005. Fowles crashed the glass with a purpose in Game 2 and severely limited any chance for a Sparks extended possession by way of an offensive rebound.
“I know what I can do and how I can get it done,” Fowles said postgame. “I think coach showed me some film on some possessions where I could have had some rebounds. I kept that at the forefront of my brain. I was like ok, make sure you crash the boards. If you can’t get it, still crash the boards. I think that’s why I was so successful tonight.”
“That’s what you expect her to do. That’s what she’s capable of every night,” coach Cheryl Reeve said postgame, a ringing endorsement of her formidable big. “It’s got to be top of mind for her. I think she took to heart some of the things we talked about. Obviously no rebounds in a quarter was something that we just weren’t going to let go in terms of what we talked about. She rebounded hard. She got hard ones in traffic.”
Having Fowles corral anything within five feet of the hoop seemingly every possession not only makes the Lynx a force in the paint, but it also can be extremely demoralizing for the team on the other end. She makes every possession that much more important for teams as they know they’ll likely only get one crack at putting points on the board.
“Syl does so many things for us,” Moore said. “She has our back in so many ways, whether it’s protecting the paint, just being so reliable on the inside for us, cleaning up defensive rebounds. That’s such a huge part to winning a championship is being able to get those defensive rebounds. So I’m just glad she’s able to just show out on the biggest stage, just do what she does for us and get recognized for it because it’s so important.”
In the end, proceedings between these two titans of the game of course came down to the final possession. Minnesota saw its 18-point first quarter lead dwindle to just two with 13.4 seconds on the clock and Alana Beard inbounding the ball with a chance for L.A. to tie or take the lead. Tuesday’s Lynx team was not about to let it happen. They forced a five-second call on Beard, and then followed that up with a Brunson steal to seal the win after Seimone Augustus had a difficult time controlling the ball on the other end.
When the final horn sounded, Whalen had the ball in her hands, a defiant but relieved look on her face, and a 70-68 win for the Lynx on the scoreboard. “I know for one thing – we weren’t going to let [Chelsea] Gray get a shot. The five-second call – that’s just everybody locked in,” Augustus said postgame. “We were kind of in our comfort zone. Game 1, it didn’t work out for us. If you saw the shot that Gray took and the hands that were there, that’s our defensive scheme. So tonight, it worked out in our favor. We clearly played Lynx defense.”
The Game 2 win was a total team effort on both ends of the floor for Minnesota. All five starters scored in double figures, and every single player who played at least two minutes snagged at least one rebound. This victory was about taking what happened in Game 1 and all 12 players on the Lynx’s roster using that heartbreak as motivation to leave everything on the floor in Game 2. No player looked to another to pick up her slack. If you were on the floor, you were going to do your job and do it well.
“This is why we’re all still here playing, is to play in these moments and these games,” Whalen said. “I know I’ve said that a lot, but it’s where you want to be. It’s what you want to be a part of, our series and games like this. Yeah, there’s a lot of ups and downs, and on Sunday night we left here feeling pretty bad. Tonight we were able to bounce back, and now we head on the road. It’s just what it’s all about. It’s some great basketball.”
Minnesota will look to continue this total team trend on Friday when the series shifts to Los Angeles for Game 3. If the squad can get this kind of top-to-bottom production from its roster, the Lynx become a difficult team to break.