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Inside The W with Michelle Smith

Through two games WNBA Finals games, one buzzer-beating ending and a 1-1 tie heading into a pivotal Game 3 on Friday (9 PM ET, ESPN 2), the star-studded Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks are living up to the hype and putting on a show that’s worthy of the league’s 20th anniversary season.

It’s a truism in sports that the best players save their best for the biggest games. And there are plenty of the WNBA’s best players in this Finals series.

Two games into a best-of-five series, let’s consider it “midterm” time and hand out grades to the marquee names.


Maya Moore: A
Maya Moore wants to and does win championships. It’s how she’s wired. Put a trophy in her sight, point her in the right direction and watch her go. The Lynx wing is doing in this series what she does best… being everything to her team. She scores (23.0 points a game in the postseason), rebounds (7.2 rpg) and defends. And let’s not discount the possibility that Moore – for all of her awards and titles – is actually playing with a little bit of a chip on her shoulder. She has every right to believe that she is the best player in the WNBA, but somehow other stars, including two that she is playing against in this series, seem to keep winning the league’s MVP award. Moore isn’t exactly overlooked, but the exceptionally, consistently high level of her play seems to be taken for granted.

Sylvia Fowles: A
Two games. Two double-doubles. Fowles’ 15-rebound effort against Los Angeles on Tuesday night set a tone and prove to be a blueprint for how Minnesota can be most successful in this series. Dominating the glass keeps the talented Sparks from being able to score. The Lynx finished by outscoring Los Angeles 17-7 in second-chance points. Thirteen offensive rebounds gave the Lynx opportunities to push their advantage and Fowles’ size counters the athleticism of Nneka Ogwumike and gives Minnesota the advantage they need.

Lindsay Whalen: B
Whalen scored a team-high 18 points in Game 1 and the Lynx lost. She scored seven points in Game 2 and the Lynx won. What that tells us is that Minnesota has enough scoring punch that they don’t need Whalen in double-figures to win. But Whalen took only seven shots in Game 2 and more noteworthy, she only went to the line once. More attempts from the floor translate to more opportunities at the free-throw line. And nobody knows that better than Whalen. Expect a more aggressive Whalen in Game 3.

Seimone Augustus: C+
Seimone Augustus and Cheryl Reeve reportedly sat down before Game 2 and had a heart-to-heart about Augustus’ role in this championship run. Reeve made the case that Augustus must play a big one. Tough to argue. In Game 1, Augustus finished with six points on 2-of-5 shooting from the floor and just two attempts from the free-throw line. In Game 2, the three-time WNBA Champion and Olympic gold medalist found her offensive stroke, finishing with 14 points. Augustus needs to be a major player in a Lynx championship run.


Nneka Ogwumike: B-
The league MVP has two double-digit scoring games in the first two games of this series and near double-doubles, so it’s hard to nitpick too much. But in Tuesday’s game, Ogwumike took just six shots from the floor and picked up five fouls. That’s not a ratio that helps the Sparks win this series against an experienced Minnesota team. Ogwumike needs to get the ball. And she and Parker need to get into their two-man game, but the Lynx are making things tough defensively. Perhaps the comfort of being at home will free Ogwumike up to do what she does best… dominate in the paint.

Kristi Toliver: B-
Toliver’s 19-point performance against Minnesota in Game 1 was crucial for the Sparks in grabbing a win on the road. She hit a couple of big 3-pointers and went 7-for-7 from the line. But Game 2 was a different day for the Sparks’ best perimeter threat. Tolliver finished Game 2 with eight points — a postseason low — on 3-of-14 shooting from the floor and no trips to the free-throw line. Toliver’s scoring from outside is a must for Los Angeles in this series. Simple as that.

Candace Parker: C
Parker’s tough game on Tuesday night was costly for Los Angeles and it cost them the opportunity to make Game 2 more competitive. Part of the Sparks’ offensive troubles in Game 2 — L.A. putting up its lowest scoring total of the postseason — originated with Minnesota’s plan to shut down Parker. Parker finished Tuesday’s game with just three field goals and six points, her lowest offensive total of the playoffs. Parker has had three 20-plus point performances in six postseason games and two single-digit games. The Sparks need more of the former and quickly.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on throughout the 2016 season.

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