Defending Champs on the Brink After Inexplicable Game 3 Struggles

LOS ANGELES – The avalanche hit the defending champs from all angles: A Kristi Toliver fadeaway. A Candace Parker reverse lay-in and jumper. An Essence Carson pull-up. Alana Beard stripping the ball from Lindsay Whalen and finding Nneka Ogwumike streaking down court for a layup.

Four minutes and five seconds into a pivotal Game 3, the three-time champion Minnesota Lynx trailed 13-2. By the end of the first quarter, they had recorded as many turnovers as made field goals (six) and faced a 15-point deficit.

There were 30 other minutes played in the game, but the visitors’ fate was already sealed in those first 10. The question surrounding this series – the question that will linger until Sunday’s Game 4 and potentially decide its outcome – was: How?

How could the league’s reigning dynasty look so hapless? How could the Lynx appear so overwhelmed when they had prepared for everything the Sparks threw at them, expected it, knew it was coming?

“I don’t think there’s much to explain other than what you saw,” superstar Maya Moore told the media after her team’s 92-75 loss.

WNBA Finals Game 3: Sparks 92, Lynx 75

Here’s what those at the Galen Center in south L.A. saw on Friday night: A concerted Sparks effort to rebound the ball better after being dominated on the boards, 78-56, through two games. Moore operating with little breathing room, attempting just seven shots and scoring in single digits for the first time in 14 games. And mainly, play after play in which the athletic, long-limbed Sparks defenders swarmed Lynx ball-handlers on the perimeter, forcing them into turnovers that led to easy baskets in transition.

But did the results come down to X’s and O’s or intangibles? Were the issues physical or mental? Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve wavered between the two in her postgame press conference.

“I don’t know that there was much emotional [challenge],” she began her diagnosis. “It was really tactical in that when we watch the video, we’re going to be really disappointed with our spacing, really disappointed with the passes that we didn’t see, really disappointed that we didn’t pivot and fake. That’s how you handle pressure.”

Reeve had said it herself after her team’s practice the day prior to the deflating loss: “There is no adjustment” to be made, no chess game to be played. The Lynx had faced the Sparks and their trapping defense five times entering Friday – not to mention the practice time spent drilling against it. “These are things that we talked about that we knew L.A. would do,” Reeve said.

Yet at the same time, the coach recognized the extra ingredient that her team seemed to lack. “I think it was, more than anything, L.A.’s sense of urgency, taking the ball out of our hands,” she said when asked whether the 22-point lead resulted from emotional or tactical challenges.

“Their want-to was on 10, which is exactly where you would expect it to be. I’m not sure what we were expecting when we started the game, but it wasn’t that.”

The media’s next question changed the subject from turnovers to offensive rebounding. How do you compensate for that in Game 4?

Reeve’s blood boiled. “It’s stupid,” she blurted out. “There’s nothing tactical. It’s just, they want the ball, and whoever does it in Game 4 is going to win.”

Do the Sparks – a franchise that hasn’t hoisted the championship trophy since 2002, that is led by a 30-year-old star, Candace Parker, playing with desperation in her first WNBA Finals – want this title more than the team that has won it three times in the last five years? Is it simply L.A.’s time?

For one night, at least, the Lynx’s desire came into question. “We didn’t rise to the occasion,” Reeve said. “We were soft. We were feeble.”

Minnesota’s previous two repeat attempts have failed as they fell at the hands of the Indiana Fever in the 2012 Finals and the Phoenix Mercury in the 2014 Western Conference Finals. These Lynx have ample time to reverse that even-year trend. Given how familiar these Finalists are with each other, and how closely matched they are, another swing could be in store in Sunday’s Game 4. Minnesota and L.A. have alternated wins during the first six games of their season series.

But are the Lynx ready to deliver a counter-punch?

“I don’t know,” their coach finally concluded. “I’m not a psychologist.”