MINNEAPOLIS – After stealing Game 1 on the road, the Sparks had a shot to take a commanding lead in the 2016 WNBA Finals before the series shifts to Los Angeles on Friday.
The Sparks missed their shot at a 2-0 lead in the series just like they missed most of their shots in a 79-60 loss that saw the Sparks match their season low for points and shoot just 32.9 percent from the field against a staunch Minnesota defense.
While Nneka Ogwumike had a standard Nneka Ogwumike game – a double-double on 5-of-6 shooting (83 percent) – she was the only player on the Sparks to shoot better than 40 percent from the field. The key stat for the league MVP wasn’t how many shots she made, but how many she attempted.
Ogwumike put up only six shots on Tuesday night, the fewest of any L.A. player not named Ana Dabovic, who went 0-of-1 in just 4:20 of playing time. Much of the credit for Ogwumike’s lack of shots goes to the Lynx defense, which clogged the lane all night long to prevent the league MVP from getting the touches she’s used to getting.
“Hats off to our posts,” said Minnesota’s Maya Moore. “They worked really, really hard tonight to just try to keep their bodies in front of Nneka, who is so good at screening and rolling or slipping. She’s so fast, so quick off the ground. So [they’re] just trying to do their best to make her catches hard. As guards we try to apply ball pressure, we try to do what we can, but I think they just overall had a greater sense of just focus and keeping themselves in front of Nneka and trying to make it harder for her instead of getting those open lay-ups that she’s so explosive at getting with her athletic catches right down the middle.”
The high-low action between Ogwumike and Candace Parker was almost nonexistent, as were the plethora of backdoor cuts that the Sparks burned the Lynx with in Game 1.
“I know defensively we were way better today, not just because of the field goal percentage, I just thought our commitment to our concepts was better,” said Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve. “I don’t know that we could have been worse than what we did last game as far as the types of easy baskets we gave up, so obviously we cleaned some things up.”
By shutting down L.A.’s easy baskets and limiting Ogwumike’s touches, the Lynx disrupted the flow of the Sparks offense and forced them into difficult shots. Outside of a 14-0 run in the third quarter, which was fueled by fast break layups, the Sparks struggled mightily in their half-court offense all night long.
“During that spurt we played with a lot of aggression and a lot of energy and we were good at the point of attack and we were rotating and active,” said Parker. “But after that we couldn’t get any stops. We weren’t fluid offensively. To just score 60 points … something has to be different going into Game 3.”
Parker couldn’t get anything going offensively in Game 2, particularly in the half court as two of her three baskets came on breakaway layups during that third-quarter run. The two-time MVP finished the night with just six points on 3-of-12 shooting and had as many turnovers as she had made baskets.
“With my relationship with Candace, I just try and talk to her, and I try to make things easier for her,” said Ogwumike. “I was trying to tell her to keep being aggressive.”
“When somebody is struggling, not getting the things that they want, I mean, I know as a point guard I can put her in a better position to be successful,” added Kristi Toliver. “That kind of bugs me a little bit right now just knowing that I think I could have done a better job putting everyone in better places. But that’s what film is for, and we’re going to regroup, and she’s going to come back feeling good on Friday.”
Toliver’s night wasn’t much better than Parker’s as the Sparks point guard had eight points on 3-of-14 shooting from the field, including 2-of-9 from 3-point range. With the Lynx focused on limiting Ogwumike and not giving up cuts to the basket, they were willing to give the Sparks 3-point shots and L.A. could not capitalize.
The Sparks led the league in 3-point percentage this season at 37.5 percent, but were as cold as a Minnesota winter in Game 2, knocking down only 3-of-20 attempts (15.0%) from beyond the arc.
“I hope we can make some of them,” said Sparks coach Brian Agler. “There’s a couple shots Kristi had wide open and just didn’t make. We’ve got some other people that are pretty good shooters, have been all year long statistically that can hit those shots.
“So I don’t know. I do think this: I think we have to adjust. I don’t know if we want to take 20 threes, but I also know that my approach is you take what the defense gives you, too, and so in a lot of cases they were giving us that shot tonight.”
Despite the rough shooting night for herself and all of her teammates outside of Ogwumike, Toliver said she and the rest of her squad can’t doubt themselves when shots present themselves moving forward.
“We had pretty good looks throughout the game, and that’s something you’ve just got to continue to take those shots,” she said. “Everybody has got to take the shots when they’re open, and I think we kind of hesitated a little bit early on when we had our pick-and-pops or what have you of just trying to make another move when the initial shot was there.”
The numbers back up Toliver’s message — the Sparks led the league in shooting throughout the regular season at 48.7 percent and they were even better at home (49.7% in the regular season and 53.3% in the playoffs), where the series shifts for the next two games.