MINNEAPOLIS — The first game-winning shot of Alana Beard’s career could not have come at a better time for the Los Angeles Sparks.
In the opening minute of Game 1 of the 2016 Finals, Beard attempted the first two shots of the game for L.A. and missed both. But with the clock winding down, the ball was in her hands for the biggest shot of the game, an 18-foot jumper from the corner, which she buried as the buzzer sounded to give the Sparks a 78-76 win.
“I don’t think I’ve ever hit a game-winner, so it’s pretty cool,” Beard said after the game. She finished with just four points, but it was the final two that made all the difference. The seven-time All-Defensive team selection also turned in an outstanding defensive performance, including some clutch stops in the game’s final two minutes.
“Everybody is going to talk about AB’s shot, but the key defensive two possessions before that, that she blocked Lindsay Whalen and she got a steal with Maya Moore, those are the possessions that were crucial for us,” said Candace Parker.
The Sparks held a four-point lead before a Seimone Augustus jumper closed the game to two points with a minute to play and after a miss by Chelsea Gray, the Lynx broke out and got the ball to Maya Moore for a contested layup to tie the game with 24.7 seconds to play.
Los Angeles called timeout to draw up a final play … and it turned out to be one that the Lynx had scouted and were prepared to stop.
“We knew exactly what they were running,” said Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve. “We were ready. We got caught over-helping, and they made a good pass. We didn’t get a deflection, and they knocked down a shot.”
The ball was in the hands of Gray at the top of the key as she ran the clock down to make sure the Sparks got the final shot. She made her move with eight seconds to play as Nneka Ogwumike came up to set a screen, then set a cross screen to free up Kristi Toliver on the left wing. Lindsay Whalen overplayed on Toliver and broke up that option, which forced Gray to take it upon herself to make the play.
“I was going to drive to the hole and either get fouled or score it,” said Gray. “But help came in, I kicked it and AB knocked it down.”
As Gray began her drive down the right side of the lane against Augustus, she ran into Moore, who was near the edge of the key helping off Beard in the corner. With Beard wide open, Gray kicked it out to her with under two seconds remaining. Moore sprinted toward Beard to contest the shot, the veteran guard rose and fired with no hesitation and hit the shot as the clock hit zeros.
“That wasn’t option 1, that was option 2,” said Sparks coach Brian Agler. “Option 1 was try to get Kristi a look, try to get some cutters to the rim, and it didn’t develop. They did a good job of blowing that up, and so Chelsea just — who was very effective tonight — she did a great job of just penetrating in the gap. She looked like she was going to take it to the rim, but they really collapsed on her and she found Alana in the corner, and Alana just knocked it down.”
Beard was 1-of-4 from the field with just two points before taking the biggest shot of the game, but was ready when the opportunity came her way.
“We know that she can knock down that mid-range shot,” said Sparks guard Kristi Toliver. “Obviously, it wasn’t our first option in that situation but she was ready and that’s very important for our team just knowing that when they take something away, something else is going to be there and just be ready in the moment.”
The Lynx were the top defensive team in the league this season, so the Sparks knew that getting the exact shots that they wanted was going to rarely be the case in this series.
“One of our key points going into postseason is preparing for like broken plays,” said Parker. “We didn’t execute that play the way that we wanted to, but we executed it the way we needed to.”
Parker was underneath the rim when Beard took the shot, giving her a perfect angle to see the ball on its way to the rim.
“I saw it and I was like, ‘That’s good,’” she said. “And it went in. I think the first thing I thought was I knew there was 0.7 seconds difference between the shot and the game clock so I knew we still had 0.7 seconds to play defense.
“And then the next thing I thought was like, ‘It’s about damn time something worked out in our favor.’ Normally that’s us getting the shot hit against us. It’s been several times in the playoffs in years past. It’s Sophia Young, it’s Brittney Griner, we can go down the list, so … yeah … it’s about time one went our way.”
The Sparks were on the wrong end of a game-winning shot in their first meeting with the Lynx this season, when Renee Montgomery knocked down a corner three with 2.9 seconds to play to give the Lynx a 72-69 win in the matchup of unbeaten teams.
There are parallels between the game-winners by Montgomery and Beard: both shots were taken by players that are not the primary scoring option for their team’s offense; both players had made only one shot (Montgomery 1-of-7, Beard 1-of-4) before attempting the game-winner; and both shots came on the road.
Unlike Beard’s shot, Reeve drew up that play for Montgomery to take the shot, while Beard was not the first option for L.A. on Sunday. But just as Minnesota’s shot was not taken by one of their four Olympians, L.A.’s shot was not taken by either of their MVPs.
Both teams have the trust to put the game in the hands of anybody on the floor, and with these two teams so evenly matched, it will likely come down to role players making big shots that will swing this series.
“Its just special – on the road, at home – it’s special,” said Beard. “Not just that shot, but that moment. This game in general because it wasn’t a pretty game and I don’t think any playoff games are pretty. But we continue to just push and push and push and stick to our game plan and trust each other. That play showed the trust.”
Part of what makes this moment so special for Beard is the fact that she’s here on this stage after her career was threatened by severe ankle and foot injuries that forced her to miss the entire 2010 and 2011 seasons.
“You know, honestly I can’t be more happy for an individual than Alana Beard,” said Agler. “If you think about her, first of all, her first championship series, and all the injuries that she’s had to deal with throughout her career, and her staying with it, she may not — you may not recognize the importance of her statistically for us a lot of times, but her presence, her leadership, obviously how disruptive she can be defensively. Then for her to hit a shot like that, it was incredible. I’m really happy for her, big play.
“But if you’re going to win championships, you’ve got to have people make big plays, and she was ready. She was ready for her moment.”
“If you’re going to win championships, you’ve got to have people make big plays, and she was ready. She was ready for her moment.” – Sparks coach Brian Agler
Beard, who joined the Sparks in 2012 after her two-year hiatus, sets the defensive mindset for the Sparks and constantly frustrated the Lynx guards with her tenacious pressure on the perimeter. She finished the game with two steals, two blocks and helped force the Lynx to commit 16 turnovers, which led to 18 Sparks’ points.
“AB has been on the team for five years and my teammates will tell you we have a very honest relationship. I love being able to just say what I feel and vice versa because we know its coming from a good place,” said Parker. “She tells me things that I don’t want to hear and vice versa so I think she’s been instrumental in my growth as a person and as a basketball player. It’s just her fierce competitiveness. I mean, I’ve watched her play since she was at Duke and she plays with the same tenacity and same energy and effort game in and game out.”
Today, she complemented that defensive effort with the biggest shot of her career.
“These are the moments that you kind of live for,” Beard said. “In the backyard playing in the dirt and putting up shots, those are the things that you go over in your head. But I think the best thing about this is the people that we’re doing it with this is a very special team. And that shot, that play, is a great example of who we have been all season, just very resilient in every way possible.”