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WNBA Finals Practice Report (Sep. 25) – Pivotal Game 2 Approaching

MINNEAPOLIS – Game 1 of the WNBA Finals lived up to the hype and then some on Sunday afternoon in Minneapolis. The league’s top two teams proved to be only be separable by a Chelsea Gray stepback jumper with 2.0 seconds left in the game to seal the victory for L.A.

Now, with Game 2 approaching fast on the horizon, both teams have little time to go back to the film room and practice floor to make the necessary adjustments to ensure a victory in a must-win Game 2 (Tuesday, at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2).

Here at the top storylines from Monday’s practices and media availabilities.

Minnesota Lynx

Setting the Tone

It was clear from a deficit that at its largest grew to 26 points in the first quarter, that the Lynx did not have that fiery mentality out of the gates that you would expect from a team that’s played in six Finals over the past seven years. The squad didn’t record an assist until under two minutes left in the quarter, and didn’t secure a rebound for the duration of it.

Head coach Cheryl Reeve was critical of her team’s willingness to win from the start after having more time to reflect on the game Monday.  “My team appeared like they just showed up, the fans would be here, we would just be able to do what we wanted to, we wouldn’t be able to play much defense, Reeve said. “We played defense good enough to win a regular-season game, maybe a preseason game, that was probably how good our defense was.”

Reeve’s final point is an important one going forward for Minnesota in this series. The Finals require you to find a will to win within yourself much deeper than in a regular season contest. The first thing that must change in Game 2 is how Minnesota approaches the first quarter and in particular the first five minutes. Announcing their presence through crashing the boards and playing solid on-ball defense will go a long way in affecting L.A.’s confidence down the stretch.

Stick to What Got You Here

For the third straight season the Lynx captured the number one overall seed heading into the postseason. While the team was without Lindsay Whalen for a decent part of the year, they still saw the imposing trio of Maya Moore, Sylvia Fowles, and Seimone Augustus put together productive scoring seasons. On Sunday these three kept it going tallying 27 points, 22 points and 19 points respectively.

While the start to the game was not what anyone on the Lynx’s bench could have anticipated, the key components to an offense that has dominated the WNBA for the better part of seven years still had effective scoring nights. If the Lynx can avoid burying themselves into a deep hole early, the offense that got them here has the ability to still flourish even against a stifling defense like L.A.’s

“L.A. just came out and struck first. They were more aggressive than us,” Augustus said Monday. “They were getting to the rim and got more paint points. They basically didn’t miss. They were hitting every shot and we couldn’t hit a shot. Once we settled into our defenses and bought into the scheme that coach had already put together for us, everything just kind of clicked offensively.”

Playing Your Role

Delving deeper into Sunday’s final stat line the teams were pretty much even across the board. Despite losing, Minnesota out-rebounded L.A. 35 to 34 and also shot a higher percentage overall from the field, 50% to 47.8%. The teams forced an equal amount of steals, eight apiece, while L.A. turned the ball over one less time than Minnesota, 14-15.

It was the Sparks’ role players who made the most of their minutes when the Lynx’s did not. Renee Montgomery, Rebekkah Brunson and Plenette Pierson shot a combined 2-for-13 from the floor while also combining for four turnovers. Jia Perkins and her six points, five rebounds, three assists, and two steals were lone bright spot amongst Minnesota’s role players.

The stars are going to get theirs for Minnesota in this series and it’s up to the others around them to limit mistakes and positively contribute when they can if the Lynx want to win Game 2 and this series.

No Flashbacks to 2016 

The way the 2017 series has started for the Lynx is eerily similar to the way the 2016 Finals, which they lost in five games, began last year. Minnesota suffered a defeat in the final seconds on their home floor in 2016 after Alana Beard drained a baseline jumper as time expired. This season it was Chelsea Gray who played the role of late game hero for L.A. as they again defeated Minnesota in Game 1 in front of their home fans.

The memories of that devastating loss and its subsequent effect on how the rest of the 2016 Finals played out cannot factor into the psyche of this year’s championship run. While the team did overcome that loss and avoided going down 2-0, it felt like the Sparks gained the upper hand from the start and never relinquished it. The 2017 Finals provide Minnesota a chance to rewrite the script on momentum and give new meaning to resiliency when it comes to WNBA titles.

“I think it’s a clean slate. I try not to look back at last year,” reigning 2017 MVP Sylvia Fowles said. “Last year didn’t work out the way I wanted it to work out. So, I try not to focus on last year.”

“I’m definitely happy that this isn’t a one-game series and we get the chance to get back on Tuesday and put it together for 40 minutes,” Maya Moore echoed.

Los Angeles Sparks

Enjoy The Win, But Not For Long

While Game 1 of the 2016 Finals did not feature a 28-2 start by L.A. and an incredible comeback by Minnesota like we saw in Sunday’s series opener, both games ended with game-winning shots by the Sparks – Alana Beard’s buzzer beater last year and Chelsea Gray’s dagger with two seconds left on Sunday.

“It was absolutely amazing,” Beard said of watching Gray’s game-winner after having her own moment a year ago. “I think Chelsea said it best that every athlete dreams of something like that, but I think the beauty of that shot is that it could have been anyone on our team, but it was her.

“That was her moment and hopefully she relishes in it for now, but not too long.”

What the Sparks don’t want to repeat is what happened in Game 2 of last year’s Finals, when the Lynx won by 19 points – the largest margin of victory in the five games series – to tie the Finals at 1-1 as the series headed to L.A.

While the Sparks had to get one win in Minnesota, they can’t be satisfied with getting Game 1 and going back home with a split and trying to hold home court and win the title in L.A. Again, we go back to last year, when the Sparks were unable to win the championship on their home floor in Game 4 and were forced to return to Minnesota and win a second road game to take the title.

Prior to Game 1, Candace Parker talked about being greedy after winning her first title and wanting to have that feeling again. The Sparks have to be greedy on Tuesday night at Williams Arena and look for a 2-0 lead before the series shifts to California.

Reality Lives Up To The Dream

After hitting the game-winner in Game 1, Chelsea Gray said that moment is something that athletes always dream about. So how did the reality of making the shot compare to the dream she had growing up as she counted down and imagined taking game-winning buzzer-beaters as a young player?

“It was amazing,” she said. “The adrenaline rush you feel after that is incredible but at the same time, the buzzer didn’t go off, we still had to focus a little bit. Alana made a heck of a play and forced a travel. So that was good.”

As she was rewatching the biggest shot of her WNBA career, Gray didn’t just revel in the joy of making the shot, she also turned a critical eye on herself in evaluating the shot.

“I think I needed to elevate a little bit more actually,” she said with a laugh. “There was actually two people on me so I could have passed it actually to whoever was open I think it might have been Alana. So it was about going back and seeing that as well.”

Focus On The Task At Hand

There was plenty of talk on Monday about the Sparks building the 28-2 lead in the first quarter and the subsequent push by the Lynx to get back into the game, eventually take the lead and then force the drama that played out over the thrilling final minute of Game 1.

All of the players and coaches have been involved in games that featured big swings like that – maybe not to the effect of a 26-point lead in a Finals game – but building a big lead and seeing an opponent chip away at it is commonplace not only in the WNBA, but in basketball in general. It’s called a game of runs for a reason.

“It happens to a lot of teams,” said Agler. “Our league for some reason is like that … you’ll see teams get out to double digit leads almost every game and then the game creeps back together.

“The start surprised me more than the finish. I was surprised we got off to that start. I wasn’t surprised they got back into the game because there was a lot of basketball to be played.”

It may seem odd, but having such a big lead early in the game can be a bit dangerous. There is a natural tendency to feel complacent; to feel that the game is in hand and it’s just a matter of time before you get the win.

“I think that when you get into a situation like that – you always like to get into those situations – but then the other team in going to respond in some way,” said Agler. “They’re competitors, they’re going to fight you, claw, pressure and try to make things happen. And then when a team makes a run on you, then your team starts watching the clock, playing the clock instead of just playing your opponent. “

“So I wasn’t [clock watching], but I know that other people do and that’s something that we have to stay focused on,” said Ogwumike. “We have to focus on the task at hand and what’s going on right now because its easy to do that. This game is on the line and there’s so much going on, the crowd is going wild. Obviously you have to be aware of time and score but you can’t be so focused on the clock that you forget what you’re doing.”

Consistent Effort For 40 Minutes

In watching the game film from Sunday’s Game 1, there were plenty of lessons to learn from both the first eight minutes when the Sparks were unstoppable and the final 32 minutes when the Lynx battled back and nearly stole the game.

“We’ve already watched film, we talked about both,” said Agler. “Right now our focus – like it has been all year long, nothing’s changed – is to try to improve. We have just this one opponent now and so we have to try to find ways to improve against this opponent.”

Every player and coach from the Sparks knows the Lynx won’t come out in Game 2 the same way they did in Game 1. They fully expect an amped up Lynx team playing with its back against the wall to try to avoid an 0-2 deficit at all costs.

“I don’t anticipate anything less that,” said Agler. “We just have to look at the game as we outplayed them in the first five minutes, and they outplayed us in the last 35. There are a lot of areas we can get better at; we have to get better at and hopefully we will.”

Whether they build another lead or have to play from behind, the Sparks are prepared for however Game 2 plays out.

“I’ve been on both sides of games like that; it’s tough both ways,” said Ogwumike. “For us, sometimes I feel we maintain our poise so well because we’ve been on all parts of the spectrum. But we have got to get better at maintaining poise when we have an advantage. That’s something that we have to do.

“And a lot of times it has to do with people making adjustments. We have to be able to adjust to what people change. They came out ready to punch back and we have to be able to stand our ground.”

“We played pretty good basketball, but we played five minutes of great basketball,” added Parker. “We won two quarters and we lost two quarters. I feel like we can build off of that, but we have to learn to adjust throughout the game, not going back after Game 1 and going back to the film and adjusting, but as individuals on the court.”