MINNEAPOLIS — Nneka Ogwumike had grown tired of answering questions about the simplest play in basketball. By the end of Game 4, the Lynx had out-rebounded Ogwumike’s Sparks by 33 in these WNBA Finals. How do you gain the rebounding edge in Game 5? a media member asked on Sunday in Los Angeles, after L.A. had allowed its first chance at a title to slip away.
“Box out,” Ogwumike said.
Four days later, the Sparks were staring down another missed opportunity. 23.4 seconds remained in Thursday’s winner-take-all Game 5, and Minnesota led, 74-73. “The rebound of your life is coming,” Ogwumike’s teammates told her during a timeout huddle. “The rebound of your life.”
On their final possession, guard Chelsea Gray pivoted outside the paint, faded to her right from about eight feet out, lifted off the Target Center floor with eight seconds left and released the potential Finals-winning shot. It missed.
Two Lynx defenders boxed out Candace Parker. None put a body on Ogwumike, who snuck in to the right of the basket, leaped for the ball and snatched it with two hands. She sprung for a lefty layup that was blocked by 6-foot-6 Lynx center Sylvia Fowles, rebounded her own miss while falling to the floor, pushed off her left leg and floated a tear-drop toward the basket. It went in.
The play that won the Sparks the WNBA Finals was not drawn up in a huddle and did not look as pretty as a pure, eight-foot fadeaway would have. It was the product of instinct, athleticism, timing and will. And it was 2016 WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike’s to make.
Play-by-play from the Sparks’ final, game-winning possession:
“I feel bad because people keep asking me in the media, ‘What do you need to do to rebound?’ And I’m like, box out. There’s really nothing else you can do,” Ogwumike said at practice the day before Game 5. “Rebounding isn’t something that you can write down, ‘Oh, one plus one equals two.’ No, there are totally different ways to do it. And the first way is effort. That’s really all it is. … It’s a want-to. There’s no other answer. If you think you can’t do it, then you won’t.”
The Sparks believed that they could, and pinpointed the battle of the boards as the key factor in a series featuring two teams separated by the slimmest of margins. One or two extra possessions either way could swing the outcome, and the L.A. front line had its hands full, at a natural disadvantage against Fowles and hulking Lynx power forward Rebekkah Brunson, the WNBA’s career leader in offensive rebounds.
Candace Parker, the eventual Finals MVP, knew it, too. For all of her dazzling gifts — the yo-yo handle, the dexterity around the basket, the silky jump shot — there was one aspect of the game the late, great Pat Summitt would try to drill into Parker’s head. “REBOUND,” Parker used to write on her orange sneakers.
“I listened to one of [Summitt’s] speeches before the game,” she told a national television audience during the championship trophy presentation, “and she would have been proud about rebounding because it came down to rebounding and defense.
“You can’t control if shots go in or if shots don’t,” she told the assembled media during her postgame press conference. “But what you can control is defense and rebounding. And that was my mindset tonight, that I had to keep Sylvia off the boards and I had to do that not just for myself, but for my team, as well.”
What Parker needs to make a concerted effort to do comes naturally to Ogwumike, the powerful complement to Candace’s finesse game. Both were equally effective at it, grabbing 12 boards apiece to help give the Sparks a 33-27 edge on the glass.
The combination provided a fitting end to a season defined by the dominance of L.A.’s dynamic front line. Parker has the name recognition and the acclaim, a nationally known prodigy since age 16; Ogwumike is her brainy, bubbly counterpart, a Stanford product selected No. 1 four years after Parker. Parker won Rookie of the Year and MVP during her rookie WNBA season; Ogwumike won Rookie of the Year, then took four more seasons to make the leap to MVP heights.
But while Ogwumike stepped into the regular-season limelight, she knew that she didn’t need to play like the MVP in the Finals’ decisive game. This was Candace’s stage, Candace’s title to seize. “I came into the game assuming that I needed to be a role player,” Ogwumike said.
So she sprinted coast-to-coast on fast breaks. She set screens and rolled hard to the rim, looking to draw defenders into the paint to open up the perimeter. She crashed the boards on every possession, knowing that even forcing a box-out could make a difference. “I don’t see it as a sacrifice,” she explained. “I see it as a responsibility.”
Limited by foul trouble, Ogwumike was forced to the bench for the final 6:16 of the first half and played the final 4:53 of the final frame with five fouls. She finished with 12 points on 6-of-10 shooting, and became the seventh WNBA player ever to win regular-season MVP honors and a title in the same season.
When the buzzer sounded, teammates Alana Beard and Chelsea Gray leaped into her arms. Sandrine Gruda hugged her from behind, Jantel Lavender joined the joyful huddle, and Ogwumike burst into tears. She crossed paths with Parker and the two embraced. “This is for you!” Ogwumike cried, pointing to her frontcourt partner. “This is for you!”
“I don’t care if I have zero points. I wanted to do what I could for my team and that’s what I knew I had to do for us to win,” she told Holly Rowe in an ESPN postgame interview. Her mother and father were waiting on-court to rejoice when she was done. (Sister Chiney would later join the celebration via FaceTime.)
Nearly a half-hour later, the euphoria had spilled into the Target Center’s visitors locker room. Back on the court, the Sparks had been presented with the 2016 WNBA championship trophy, and Nneka was the first to grab hold of it. “Touch it! Touch it!” she had told her teammates.
Now she stood to the side while her teammates doused each other in champagne. She wore a yellow “2016 Champs” shirt with a matching hat, turned backwards. Asked to describe the play that had led to this all, Ogwumike, for once, ran short on words.
“I don’t even remember,” she said. “I just know I got the rebound and I put it in.”