MINNEAPOLIS – It’s only fitting that the WNBA’s two best teams throughout the regular season would need a fifth and final game to decide who will be crowned as champions and the better of the two teams in 2017.
Minnesota and L.A. found themselves in this exact same predicament last Finals. The series came down to not only a winner-take-all Game 5, but a contested layup in the final three seconds of game action by Nneka Ogwumike as the slim and deciding factor for the Sparks hoisting the championship trophy in 2016.
Now, with another winner-take-all Game 5 in Minnesota less than 48 hours away, both teams hit the hardwood at Williams Arena to make their last preparations before the seismic clash takes place Wednesday at 8 PM ET on ESPN.
Here are the top storylines from the final practice of the 2017 WNBA season:
MVP Proving Her Value On Both Ends
Although the Lynx lost Game 1 of these Finals, it was clear from the opening tip that 2017 WNBA MVP Sylvia Fowles was out to prove she would be the catalyst behind a record-tying fourth title for Minnesota. Syl opened Game 1 with 22 points on a highly-effective 10-for-15 shooting from the field and added 13 rebounds. From there she recorded a double-double in her next three games to become the first player in WNBA history to tally four consecutive double-doubles in the Finals.
While her scoring output in Minnesota’s must-win Game 4 in Los Angeles was impressive (22 points), it was her six offensive rebounds that extended possessions and proved to be a key component to sending the series back to Minnesota.
“It’s going to play a big factor,” Fowles said Tuesday when asked about the importance of rebounding. “I’m pretty sure it’s at the top of L.A.’s mind. They’re going to come out and be very aggressive on the boards as well. We pretty much have to make our own breaks if we want to win this game. That’s what it’s going to come down to – both teams doing the little things that give them the separation.”
Feeding Off “The Barn”
Williams Arena, more commonly referred to as “The Barn” on the University of Minnesota’s campus, isn’t Minnesota’s regular-season home. But it’s become an electric venue that produces a deafening sound that opponents have had issues dealing with this postseason.
First it played host to two games against the Washington Mystics in the semifinal round, where D.C. was outscored 194-164. Then after playing backdrop to the Lynx’s first postseason loss of 2017 in the opening game of these Finals, its rowdy environment spurred Minnesota to a hard-fought 70-68 win in Game 2. Now, the arena and the fervent fans that will pack it to the rafters Wednesday night will do everything in their power to be an x-factor in securing a Lynx championship.
“The energy is going to be great in The Barn,” Seimone Augustus said Tuesday. “Obviously, we’re going to try to come out and do what we always do. It seems like whatever team punches first punches the longest and pulls out the win. That’s definitely what both teams want to come out and do – try to be the one that punches the longest. We’re going to come out and obviously give our “A” game.”
The game is likely going to be close from start to finish, and while there may not be any physical edge on either roster, the environment inside the The Barn will look to give the Lynx a psychological one.
The Players’ Time
After four hard-fought games in this series, both coaches are looking to make a few last-minute adjustments before the final game of the 2017 WNBA season.
“Yeah, you’d be surprised; any little advantage that you can get,” said Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve. “It’s taking the accumulation of four games. That’s a lot of possessions – 75 possessions times four is a lot, like over 300 possessions. You learn a lot. I think each of us have a lot of information, and you want to apply that information and pour everything you have into Game 5.”
After utilizing her final practice on Tuesday, Reeve said she will take a step back during Wednesday’s Game 5.
“We told them Game 5 is time for the players,” she said. “Coaches get out of the way. This is about players making plays. Recognizing your opportunities. Recognizing those moments that you can take advantage of your defender.
“At this point the plays are what they are. It’s about what you can do out of those plays. It’s the little things you’re willing to do within a play, to keep playing and obviously the hustle plays on the glass. That’s what it’s about.”
Reeve said she doesn’t want to be barking at her team from the sideline and making them question what they are doing on the floor in the moment. Sparks coach Brian Agler agreed, saying his job is to give his players the information they need, then let them play.
“You try to keep it as simple as possible, try to eliminate any distractions that way,” he said. “It’s still going to be determined by what happens out there between the lines. You just try to keep it simple for the players, make it easy so they can come out here and play free.”
Augustus said the time for strategy is over and now it comes down to which team can execute on the floor.
“Game 5, you probably have a wrinkle here or there, but for the most part, you’re going to have to do what you do,” she said. “I’m going to have to shoot my patented jump shot. Syl is going to have to get in there and bang. Maya [Moore] is going to have to shoot her three-ball. Those are things we’re going to have get down to the basics.”
“Game 5 is go time as coach Agler would say,” Sparks guard Alana Beard added. “It’s sort of been the same headline throughout this entire series. With these two teams, it doesn’t come down to X’s and O’s anymore. It’s about the intangibles and that is exactly what Game 5 is going to be – a game of intangibles.”
Meaning Of Game 5
As much as both teams would have loved to wrap up The Finals in three games and blow out their opponent each time, players from both teams recognized the magnitude and significance of Wednesday’s Game 5.
“Obviously both teams probably would have wanted it a little differently, in terms of knocking it out and being done with it maybe,” said Beard. “But this is so good for women’s basketball and I’m grateful that I’m a part of this moment because you couldn’t ask for a better series. And I can assure you that both teams are going to go down fighting.”
“It’s very fitting. It makes for a really compelling ending to the 2017 season,” added Minnesota’s Maya Moore. “Both teams have been showing why they’re the best all year, and I’m just glad we’re able to really play and hopefully the game will go in a way where the best team wins.”
“It speaks to the rivalry,” added Ogwumike. “We actually just saw a very interesting graphic on the WNBA’s Instagram – in the last 12 meetings we are tied 908-908, which I think is pretty spectacular. That speaks to the evolution of the game, the evolution of this competition that we have between each other. I would hope that everybody enjoys watching it as much as we love playing it.”
For the second straight year, the Sparks were unable to close out the series at home in Game 4 and were forced to return to Minnesota for a winner-take-all Game 5.
“We can look at it as a disappointment that we’re playing in a Game 5, or we can look at it as an opportunity,” said Sparks forward Candace Parker. “I think that if you poll anyone anywhere around the league, that if you have one game and an opportunity to win a championship, would you take it? I’m pretty sure everybody would take that. So that’s the mentality we have to have going in. It’s not going to be easy.”