MINNEAPOLIS — The L.A. Sparks had watched everything they’d prepared for and dreamed of — the chance to celebrate a WNBA championship in front of more than 12,000 fans at the Staples Center — slip away.
Around the postgame locker room, they knew that they had put forth a championship-level effort in an 85-79 loss to the league’s reigning dynasty, the Minnesota Lynx. They just hadn’t played with championship-level poise down the stretch, allowing the moment to get too big in their heads.
That’s when the franchise’s co-owner, Magic Johnson, entered the room.
“You could hear a pin drop,” guard Kristi Toliver relayed on Wednesday, before practice for Thursday’s winner-take-all Game 5 (8 PM ET, ESPN 2). “Everybody was just really locked into what he was saying. When you have a guy like him — a basketball guy who’s done so many things and won five championships — when he’s talking, everybody listens.”
Magic, who had last addressed the team at a luncheon before the semifinals, told them about the Lakers’ series with the Celtics back in the ’80s. He told them a few things that Ogwumike chose to keep private in the moments after Game 4 in L.A. But mainly, he told them a message that still resonated with the Sparks’ leaders the day before Game 5: “This isn’t over.”
“‘We can win in their place,'” Toliver summarized Magic’s message. “‘We’ve done it. You just have to believe that.’
“We totally believe that. That was exactly what we needed to hear in that moment. Because in that moment, your emotions – you’re all over the place. But he just brought everybody back in, refocused everyone.”
“We almost felt like he was on the team when he was talking to us,” Ogwumike said with a smile.
With an L.A. legend in their corner and valuable lessons from a Game 4 letdown behind them, the Sparks exuded confidence heading into another game with the title on the line. Yes, they don’t have the experience to match the Lynx, who played in a Game 5 just last year. But that can be a good thing.
“We’ve approached that positively. Not ever being somewhere, it can either go one way or another,” Ogwumike explained. “You can either have the Disney World effect, like, ‘Whoooa, oh my god, first time here — give me the ears! Or like, ‘No. Uh-uh. No.’ I’m just like, ‘I’m here for the first time, I’m getting on every ride, I’m making the most of this situation and I’m going to come out feeling good.'”
With three days in between Games 4 and 5, the Sparks had plenty of time to stew on Sunday’s missed opportunity. They went to the gym and watched film immediately after the game, then replayed it again on Monday. There were basketball moves to be made: reasserting themselves on the boards, first and foremost; continuing to find ways to apply pressure and disrupt the Lynx offense; containing Maya Moore enough to keep the game in check; getting better production from the role players Minnesota is choosing to overlook defensively.
But these teams have now faced seven times this season. “There are no more X’s and O’s,” as Sparks guard Alana Beard said.
No, Game 5 is a mental game. After Sunday night’s loss, Ogwumike said she laid in bed with a feeling not of disappointment but of confusion. We played so hard — why didn’t it wooooork?
At film study the next day, Agler pinpointed what went wrong. “We fought hard. I don’t doubt that at all. But I think that everyone out there was playing to win a championship and not to beat the team that we were playing.”
“I told Coach [Tuesday] at the airport,” Ogwumike said to the assembled media, “‘That’s exactly how I felt.'”
It’s why guard Essence Carson insisted before practice concluded that the Sparks are not trying to win a championship at the Target Center on Thursday night. “No, we’re winning a game,” she said.