MINNEAPOLIS – With the Los Angeles Sparks leading by one point with 13.7 seconds to play in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, the Minnesota Lynx secured a missed free throw by Essence Carson and took off in transition with Lindsay Whalen finding a streaking Maya Moore for a layup to put the Lynx up by one with 6.5 seconds remaining.
The Williams Center crowd was exploding, as the Lynx were on the verge of pulling off the most improbable comeback in WNBA history after trailing 28-2 during the opening quarter.
The Sparks called their final timeout and as they drew up their final play in the huddle, it was point guard Chelsea Gray’s number that got the call.
“They have to have a lot of confidence from their teammates,” said Sparks coach Brian Agler. “They get that from their teammates. And you know, even in that timeout, they were encouraging me, Candace was encouraging me, especially, to get it in [Gray’s] hands.”
Rather than taking the biggest shot of the game, Candace Parker – last year’s Finals MVP – was inbounding the ball on the sideline and knew exactly what she wanted.
“I told her coming out of the timeout I’m coming to her and be ready. And she was,” Parker said.
Gray caught Parker’s inbounds pass on the right side of the court, about five feet outside the 3-point line. She drove middle against good defensive pressure from Minnesota’s Seimone Augustus before pulling up at the left elbow for the game-winning jumper that never even hit the rim.
After a traveling violation by Moore thwarted any last-second effort by the Lynx to win the game, Parker found Gray near mid-court, hugged her and yelled into her ear.
“I don’t think I can censor it,” Parker said of what she told Gray in that moment. “I just told her I’m so proud of you. And its not necessarily for making the shot, its for taking it and having the ability to take that pressure and not pass it up. She’s one of those people that rises to the occasion.
“A lot of time pressure busts pipes and she ain’t busting.”
Gray finished with a career-high 27 points and six assists – both tied for the game-high with Moore (points) and Whalen (assists) – and either scored or assisted on each of the Sparks’ three baskets in the final minute. It was a final minute that saw the only four lead changes of the game, with Gray’s elbow jumper with 2.0 seconds remaining being the final one.
“All athletes dream of that moment, you know, especially at this magnitude and at this stage, I think you dream of hitting that shot,” she said following the game. “Last year it was Alana and then it was Nneka. I’m glad it went in. I think we drew up a good play, and my teammates had confidence in me once I got the ball and I knocked it down.”
While Parker and Ogwumike battled foul trouble throughout the game, it was Gray that was the consistent force for the Sparks from start to finish. Between the points she scored (27) and the points she created with her assists (13), she accounted for nearly half (40) of Los Angeles’ 85 points on Sunday.
“That’s the beauty of Chelsea,” said veteran wing Alana Beard, who was one of five different players that Gray assisted on Sunday.
“I said it last year that she will eventually be the best point guard in this league because she can score in so many ways and on top of that she’s an unbelievable passer. That complements her offensive game extremely well.”
“I’m proud of her, proud of what she did in this game, not just down the stretch but the entire game managing a team,” added Parker. “Going from coming off the bench last year, to starting as a third year point guard, to having this type of game. That is huge growth.”
Gray may not have the experience of her teammates or opponents, but she does not get rattled in big moments. In Game 1 of last year’s Finals, it was Gray that found Beard open in the corner for the game-winning 3-pointer. In Game 5 of that series, it was Gray that brought the ball upcourt on the Sparks’ final possession and took a potential game-winner that missed, but was rebounded and put back by Nneka Ogwumike to clinch the championship. Then there was Sunday’s clutch basket that allowed the Sparks to strike first in the Finals for the second straight year.
“She will eventually be the best point guard in this league because she can score in so many ways and on top of that she’s an unbelievable passer” – Alana Beard on Chelsea Gray
“I am not surprised by any means,” said Beard. “She’s been hitting big shots in big moments since she’s been on this team.
“Besides our two rookies she’s the youngest player on this team. But you can’t tell because she has such a composure about her and she’s wise for her age while she’s out there on the court.”
It was composure that was on Gray’s mind when it came time to execute the final play.
“Yeah, I think it starts with preparation,” said Gray. “Coach always preaches poise, no matter if they are very aggressive on the ball; if the crowd is loud, just staying together. That’s kind of what went through my mind. I’m just like, stay composed and I did basically a normal shot, you know. That was basically my mentality.”
The most clutch players are able to make intense, pulse-pounding situations feel like routine situations, which is what Gray did on Sunday in Minnesota. She did not let the roaring home crowd rattle her. She didn’t let the magnitude of the shot effect her. She knew how much time she had to work with, took the inbounds pass, got to her sweet spot at the left elbow and put up the biggest shot of the season without hesitation.
“We found a way to get the ball in the right person’s hands,” said Agler. “Chelsea Gray made some very, very big plays throughout the course of the game, and especially down the stretch.”
Just when it seemed that Game 1 would be remembered for Minnesota pulling off the greatest comeback in WNBA history – regular season, Playoffs or Finals – and Los Angeles squandering a golden opportunity to steal a game on the road, the Sparks were able to find a way to finish the job.
“I’m proud of us because there’s not a lot of teams that could have pulled off this game, in terms of being up so much and having an emotional letdown,” said Parker. “But we have Chelsea Gray on our team.”