LOS ANGELES – Prior to Game 4 of the 2016 Finals, the WNBA championship trophy was brought out and displayed on the court as the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx went through their final warm ups.
Once the game was set to tip off, the trophy was taken off the floor and remained in the bowels of the arena, ready to be brought back out to the court for a trophy presentation and championship celebration should the Sparks win the game and earn a 3-1 series victory.
The trophy never made it back to the Staples Center floor. Instead, it was packed up and traveled from Los Angeles to Minnesota – along with both teams – as the Lynx won Game 4 to stave off elimination and push the series to a decisive Game 5 back in Minneapolis.
This Sunday, the championship trophy will be back inside the Staples Center. Once again, the Sparks hold a 2-1 series lead heading into Game 4 with a chance to win the title on their home floor. Can the Sparks finish the job at home this year after failing to do so a year ago?
With this year’s Finals being a rematch of last year’s championship series, players and coaches from both teams have fielded plenty of questions over the past week asking them to compare this year’s series to last year’s series.
Especially since the series has played out in similar fashion. The Sparks stole Game 1 on the road thanks to a game-winning jump shot in the closing seconds. The Lynx bounced back to win Game 2 to send the series to L.A. tied at 1-1. The Sparks responded by defending their home court and winning Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead.
Most of those questions have been met with responses about how this is a new year and last year was last year. However, after Game 3, the Sparks discussed the lessons they learned from last year’s missed opportunity in Game 4 and how they look to remedy the situation this time around.
“I don’t think they’re going to give us anything, they’re competitors, they’re a great team, its going to be a fight just like it was [Friday], but we can’t focus on it being a championship, I don’t think that should be our focus,” said Candace Parker. “Its more so us doing what got us here. Trusting the process, trusting the journey, trusting what we do. I think – I hope – everybody’s ready for Sunday.”
Parker admits that the team “kind of got a little ahead of ourselves” when they were in this same position a year ago. Sparks coach Brian Agler summed it up best when he told his team that last year they were trying to win a championship rather than just trying to win a game.
“That was the quote of the series last year,” said Nneka Ogwumike. “You have to take it moment by moment. Right now we’re focused on getting rest and then coming in [Saturday] and having a good practice and watching some video. It’s really just a moment-by-moment type of thing. We’re just trusting the process.”
The Sparks just need to win the game, and the championship and everything that goes along with that, will come along with the win. But they know it won’t come easy against a battle-tested team like Minnesota.
“We know it’s going to be a dogfight,” said Parker. “The reason why they’ve been here before is because they’ve been able to play with their backs against the wall. This is about maturity and being able to play as a game. We’ve got to take it one play at a time. We can’t get ahead of ourselves. That’s our focus going into Game 4.”
“We talk a lot about surrendering the outcome and just staying in the moment,” added Alana Beard. “So hopefully that’s what each individual can do and whatever happens, happens.”
This series has been dictated by the team that shows the highest sense of urgency in each game, particularly at the start of the game as the winner of the first quarter has gone on to win 12 of the last 14 meetings between these squads.
The Lynx will have a sense of desperation on their side as their season is on the line in Game 4. The Sparks must combat that by showing a killer instinct to try to finish off this veteran Lynx squad and not give them any hope of extending the series.
“Honestly this is what’s so ironic about our team; you look across the board. [Odyssey Sims] was traded, I’ve had injuries and been counted out, Nneka and myself with what happened last year, [Beard] with injuries, Chelsea [Gray] with injuries,” said Parker. “All of us have a kind of story like where we weren’t wanted, so I think that kind of develops that killer attitude. That develops that killer mentality.
“You know they have it too. They’ve been to six Finals in seven years; you can’t do that without a killer mentality, but its kind of nice to have someone who can match that.”
The Sparks know the Lynx will give them everything they can handle on Sunday as they try to stay alive. Parker reflected back to her college days and a lesson from legendary coach Pat Summitt to describe this Lynx opponent that they must knock off to win the title.
“I’m going take a line from my coach. Coach Summitt used to tell me you know it’s hard to get on top but it’s harder to stay on top,” said Parker. “So they [Lynx] have to have something; they’re doing something right, but we’re trying to learn and figure it out.”
What the Sparks hope to figure out on Sunday is how to win back-to-back games against the Lynx in the Finals. In last year’s series, the teams traded wins over the five games, with the Sparks winning the first and last games in Minnesota to take the title. So far, this year’s series has played out the same way, with the Sparks stealing Game 1 on the road, dropping Game 2 and getting the first win back in L.A.
It’s a testament to how evenly matched these teams are and how the coaches and players from both squads make necessary adjustments from game to game. Can the Sparks be the team to break through and not only win back-to-back games in the Finals against Minnesota, but also become the first team to win back-to-back championships since 2002?
“Nothing is guaranteed,” said Parker. “And I think that’s the way that we’re going to approach their team that plays well when their backs are against the wall. And we play well when our backs are against the wall, so how do we play when we’re ahead? I guess that’s the question.”