We’re one week removed from an instant classic Game 5 in the WNBA Finals between the L.A. Sparks and the Minnesota Lynx to wrap up the league’s historic 20th season, and the question still remains: Did we just witness the greatest game in the league’s two-decade history?
I'm not sure….y'all help me out. Is this the best @wnba game EVER???
— Ticha Penicheiro (@TichaPenicheiro) October 21, 2016
So let’s have that debate right here, right now. We’ll break down the pros and cons of the argument, then turn it over to you, the fans, to decide.
POINT: What more could you ask for? The WNBA Finals was decided on a game-winning shot by Nneka Ogwumike with 3.1 seconds remaining. The final 72 seconds alone featured five lead changes and a tie between the clear-cut two best teams in the league all season long.
COUNTERPOINT: Don’t be a prisoner of the moment. Yes, this was an incredible game, but it’s so easy to call something that is fresh in our minds the greatest ever without seriously looking back at the past 20 years.
POINT: This was the fifth WNBA Finals to come down to a winner-take-all Game 5 since the league adopted a best-of-five Finals format back in 2005, and this was the only one of those games decided by a single point.
COUNTERPOINT: True, but this was not the first WNBA Finals game decided by a single shot. Ogwumike’s putback was the sixth game-winning shot in Finals history. There was Maya Moore’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer last year, Diana Taurasi’s 3-point play in 2014, Nikki Teasley’s 3-pointer back in 2002, Teresa’s Weatherspoon miraculous shot in 1999, and even Alana Beard’s buzzer-beater in Game 1 of this series.
POINT: Let’s go down that list one-by-one.
Moore’s 3-pointer in 2015 came in Game 3 to give Minnesota a 2-1 series lead, but it single-handedly did not win the series for the Lynx. They needed two more games to finish off the Fever and win their third title in five years.
Taurasi’s 3-point play in 2014 finished off a sweep of the Chicago Sky in one of the most lopsided WNBA Finals in history. The decisive Game 3 was the only game decided by fewer than 21 points in that series. Plus, if that shot didn’t go in, the game would have still been tied and could have been decided in overtime.
Teasley’s 3-pointer in 2002 is similar to Taurasi’s play. It capped off a two-game sweep (the Finals were best-of-three back then) and came with the score tied, so the shot did not have the same consequences as Ogwumike’s.
Weatherspoon’s half-court buzzer-beater in 1999 has long been identified as the single-greatest shot in WNBA history. While it remains the most improbable, Ogwumike’s shot may take that title away from Spoon because of its overall significance. Weatherspoon’s shot extended the 1999 Finals to a decisive Game 3 that the Liberty lost to the Comets, so it did not lift her team to a championship like Ogwumike’s shot. And as amazing as Weatherspoon’s shot was, there is a stroke of luck involved with any half-court heave. Ogwumike’s shot came off an offensive rebound. Her first put-back attempt was blocked, she recovered the block, gathered and put up a second attempt with the clock and the season winding down over a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Sylvia Fowles.
Beard’s Game 1 buzzer-beater was the defining shot of the 2016 Finals until Game 5. It would have been eclipsed by Moore’s potential Finals-winner with 15.4 seconds left in Game 5, when Maya escaped Beard’s defense and put up a smooth jumper to put the Lynx up one in the closing moments. While it took four games to eclipse Beard’s Game 1 shot, it took just 12.3 seconds to erase Moore’s go-ahead bucket thanks to the MVP’s signature moment.
COUNTERPOINT: Let’s look beyond championship-clinching games. Sure, those have added significance due to the stakes at hand, but there have been other Finals, Playoff and even regular season games that have rivaled this game from an entertainment standpoint.
Game 1 of the 2009 WNBA Finals was the highest scoring game in league history at the time and remains the highest scoring game in Finals history, as the Phoenix Mercury outlasted the Indiana Fever 120-116 in overtime. The Sparks and Lynx combined to score 153 points in Game 5 of the 2016 Finals; this game saw a combined 236 points (with 210 of those coming in regulation).
That game had 11 players scoring in double figures and five score at least 22 points, led by Katie Douglas’ 30 in a losing effort. The two teams combined to shoot 52.9 percent from the field (compared to 47.4 percent for Game 5 of this year’s Finals) and 51.1 percent from beyond the arc (compared to 30.8 percent in this year’s Game 5). This was an offensive display unlike anything the WNBA had ever seen.
The game featured huge shots by star players and role players alike, momentum swings back and forth, 19 lead changes and 13 ties in the opening game of a series that went the full five games to determine the champion. The Mercury won Game 1 and eventually Game 5 on their home floor to claim their second title in three years.
POINT: Yes, Game 1 of the 2009 Finals was magnificent and was the standard for the WNBA in terms of pure entertainment — until last week. As great as that game was, it was the first game of the series. If Douglas misses her 3-pointer with seven seconds left in regulation to force overtime or Cappie Pondexter doesn’t hit her two buckets and free throw in the final 90 seconds of overtime to seal the win, their teams would still have lived to play another day.
Sure, winning Game 1 is important. In fact, the winner of Game 1 since the Finals went to a best-of-five format in 2005 has gone on to win the title nine of 12 times. But it is not a guarantee. The only game that guarantees that you win a championship is Game 5. And that is why the Sparks-Lynx game gets the edge.
While the Mercury and Fever put on a prettier offensive display with shooting numbers rarely seen in any game — let alone a Finals game — and had far more points to work with, the Lynx and Sparks featured five more lead changes and only two fewer ties, as neither team led by more than six points until the game’s closing minutes. And L.A.’s game-high eight-point lead was erased by a furious Minnesota rally that put them in position to win their second straight title with 15.4 seconds to play.
COUNTERPOINT: We can’t dismiss great games and great performances that did not come in a winner-take-all game. By doing so, we are throwing away the two epic playoff duels – one from the 2011 Finals and the other from the 2010 East Finals – featuring the playoff-scoring machine that is Angel McCoughtry.
Yes, the 2011 Finals ended in a three-game sweep for the Minnesota Lynx, but don’t discount the incredible back-and-forth that took place between Atlanta’s McCoughtry and Minnesota’s Seimone Augustus. Not only was that the highest-scoring Finals game by opposing players, but they are the top two single highest-scoring performances in the history of the WNBA Finals. And they came against one another on the same court with McCoughtry’s 38 edging out Augustus’ 36, but Seimone’s Lynx coming away with the Game 2 victory.
The year before her clash with Augustus, McCoughtry squared off with New York’s Pondexter in the highest scoring Playoff game between opposing players, as the two combined for 78 points. McCoughtry led the Dream to their first Finals by scoring a WNBA Playoff record 42 points to outduel Pondexter’s 36-point effort and complete the sweep in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
POINT: McCoughtry’s brilliance is undeniable, but so was Atlanta’s penchant for coming up short in the WNBA Finals. They are 0-9 in three appearances, and part of the reason the WNBA adopted a new playoff format was to ensure that the two best teams in the league faced off in the Finals rather than the Western Conference Finals.
There is no doubt that this year’s Finals featured the top two teams in the league. In fact, the two had the highest combined winning percentage (.794) of any Finals participants in league history.
How evenly matched were these two teams this season? In their eight meetings during the regular season and Finals, five were decided by single digits, including four by three points or less. The composite score of their eight games this season was separated by just seven total points (Sparks 623, Lynx 616). Their five Finals games were decided by a total of five points, with the Lynx holding the overall edge (391-386), but the Sparks taking the title by winning the two closest games of the series – Game 1 by two points and Game 5 by just one point.
The teams traded blows all season long – neither team won consecutive games during the regular season or Finals – and the Sparks landed the final blow with 3.1 seconds left on an effort play by the league’s Most Valuable Player.
If Ogwumike doesn’t make that play and Moore’s shot with 15.4 seconds remaining proves to be the game-winner and series-clincher that led the Lynx to the first repeat championship in 14 years, this game still would be in the conversation as the greatest ever. But that final sequence, with the lead and the title swinging back and forth in the final 90 seconds, culminating in Ogwumike’s game-winner, puts this one over the top.