MINNEAPOLIS – The Sparks knew what was coming and they still couldn’t stop it.
After exploding to a 28-2 lead in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals and forcing the Minnesota Lynx to battle back all night long to make it a close contest in the final minutes, the Los Angeles Sparks knew the Minnesota Lynx were going to retaliate in Tuesday’s Game 2.
They talked about it in the locker room following Game 1, again the following day at practice, and once again on game day at their morning shootaround.
“I think it was a different type of hunger from them,” said Alana Beard following L.A.’s 70-68 loss in Game 2 to tie the best-of-five series at 1-1. “They were embarrassed by the way they played in the first game. It made sense that this is their retribution as a team. So when they’re facing adversity they’re going to come out with a punch and it wasn’t unexpected.”
The Lynx punch was a first quarter that saw them outscore the Sparks 28-10, flipping the script on what L.A. did to them just two days earlier.
“They really came out and set the tone of the game early,” said Sparks coach Brian Agler. “I don’t think we responded quite as well as we would have liked, but I think they had a lot to do with that.”
Minnesota was the aggressor for the opening tip and was utterly dominant in every measure of the game. The Lynx shot 63.2 percent in the opening quarter, led by Lindsay Whalen’s seven points, to go with six points apiece from the post duo of Sylvia Fowles and Rebekkah Brunson. Meanwhile, the Sparks’ bigs – Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike – combined for zero points on 0-for-7 shooting.
“I just think things weren’t clicking,” said Ogwumike. “I didn’t necessarily feel that we were going to come out that way. We knew that they were going to come out with a punch but we were allowing them to take certain things way and we weren’t taking what they were giving us.”
The Lynx dominated the paint (14-4 advantage), the boards (12-6) and forced six Sparks turnovers that led to nine Lynx points. It felt like a mirror image of what had happened in Game 1, except this time the home team was putting on the clinic rather than the visitors.
Beard and Essence Carson helped supply some offense for the Sparks in the second quarter, while the rest of the team continued to struggle. At the end of the first half, the Sparks as a team were shooting just 28.1 percent (9-for-32) from the field. Beard and Carson shot a combined 5-for-7 (71.4%), while their teammates were a combined 4-for-25 (16.0%), including an 0-for-11 showing for the two MVPs in Parker (0-for-4) and Ogwumike (0-for-7, with three of her shots being blocked inside).
Parker finished the first half with zero points and zero rebounds in 14 minutes. It was the first time in her 10-year WNBA career – regular season or postseason – that she failed to score or grab a rebound in a single half of play.
“It was just inactivity on my part,” Parker said to describe her first half struggles. “I know I can’t play like I did in the first half and expect us to be in a game. It’s not even me scoring, its just my activity.”
Parker’s activity level could have been affected by the fact that she tweaked her left ankle while taking warm up shots in a pregame. It was the second time during this postseason that she injured the ankle while landing on a pre-game jump shot. The previous time was prior to Game 1 of the Semifinal series against the Phoenix Mercury.
Just like in that game, Parker suited up and played and would not use it as an excuse for her poor start on Tuesday night. Neither would her coach.
“I don’t think it affected her,” said Agler. “You know, we’re not a team that makes excuses. If she plays, she plays. If she can’t play, then she doesn’t play. So as long as she’s on the floor, then we expect Candace to be Candace.
“I don’t think it really affected her at all. I thought that across the board, not her but across the board, our team just — we didn’t have the fight and the grit in the first half that could match or come close to Minnesota.”
The second half was a different story. Just as the Lynx scratched and clawed their way back into Game 1 of this series, now it was L.A.’s turn to fight back from a slow start and get themselves back into the game.
Ogwumike got things started in the third quarter by scoring her first basket of the game on a cutting layup with an assist coming from Parker. That play symbolized much of L.A.’s second half offense – there was more player movement, more cuts to the basket and more precise passing – and the result was better execution.
— WNBA (@WNBA) September 27, 2017
After making just nine shots as a team in the entire first half, the Sparks shot 9-for-15 in the third quarter as they outscored the Lynx 24-15 to make it a 10-point game heading into the fourth quarter. The Sparks’ second half run was also fueled by their defense, which allowed just 25 Lynx points in the second half after giving up 28 in the first quarter alone.
“I think that our fight and our grit and our persistence was better defensively, especially in the second half, and forced some turnovers, got in transition, scored, started moving the ball and moving people a little bit better offensively,” said Agler.
“We started moving our bodies and moving with pace,” added Beard. “Whereas in the fist half we allowed the ball to stay on one side without reversals; we allowed them to take us out of our offensive mentality.
“But we have the type of post players that are capable of doing many things and when they’re stagnant then the offense gets stuck. In the third quarter it was clear they came out, they were moving the ball, they were moving their bodies and our offense flowed a little bit better.”
— WNBA (@WNBA) September 27, 2017
After posting no points, no rebounds and two assists in the first half, Parker bounced back with nine points, three rebounds and three assists in the third quarter. Ogwumike added six points and two steals in the period.
Through the first half of the fourth quarter, it appeared that the Lynx may be able to keep the Sparks’ run at bay as Minnesota held an 11-point advantage with 4:38 left to play.
After an Ogwumike layup and a Chelsea Gray 3-pointer over the next minute of play, the Lynx lead was cut to six and the Williams Arena crowd could sense that they were in for another instant classic between these two teams.
The Sparks would cut the lead to four on a pair of Odyssey Sims free throws with 1:49 to play and Parker’s long two-point jumper closed the gap to three points with 1:21 to play.
“You really don’t notice it until you look up at the scoreboard,” said Beard about a number of long two-point shots that the Sparks made during the course of the game. “I think Candace took a big shot and she made it and wish she would have been back a little bit more, we saw her foot was on the line. But in the course of a game you don’t look at stuff like that until you look up at the scoreboard.”
The scoreboard showed it was a one-possession game with 81 seconds to play, eerily similar to what we have seen so many times when these teams meet in the championship series.
The Sparks forced a turnover on the other end, as the momentum was completely on their side, but Gray – the Game 1 hero – was unable to make a game-tying 3-pointer on the other end. After a free throw by Moore and a pair of free throws by Parker, it was once again a two-point game.
After a missed jumpshot by Moore, Ogwumike grabbed the rebound and the Sparks called their final timeout looking to set up a potential game-tying or game-winning play with just 13.4 seconds remaining.
However, after battling all the way back to put themselves in a position to try to steal another road game and go back to L.A. up 2-0, the unthinkable happened – a five-second violation as Beard was unable to inbound the ball to a teammate coming out of the timeout.
“I didn’t see anyone open, but with that being said, it’s my responsibility to do whatever I can to get the ball inbounds, and that didn’t happen,” said Beard.
“I just felt like we had a play, we just didn’t execute it quite the way we would have wanted,” said Agler. “And then because of how we run the play, everybody is sort of running away from the ball, and it just put Alana in a bad spot.”
Now it was Minnesota’s turn to inbound the ball from the sideline as the Sparks applied pressure to look for a steal or an improbable turnover. And that is exactly what they got as Seimone Augustus stumbled on her way toward the sideline to catch the inbounds pass from Whalen and she was unable to control it and it went out of bounds.
L.A. was given new life, but had no timeouts to draw up a new play. They got the ball into Gray’s hands and let her create. However, as she drove down the right side of the court, she was met with multiple defenders and Brunson was able to deflect the ball away to Moore, who passed it up to Whalen and she dribbled the final seconds off the clock.
— WNBA (@WNBA) September 27, 2017
The Sparks had two possessions in the final 13.4 seconds to try to tie the game or take the lead and never attempted a single shot.
“Those are situations where you have to be able to make plays and I think we were a bit on our heels for both of those turnovers,” said Ogwumike. “We need to get open and then we have to be able to recognize how they guarded us coming out. They were swarming Chelsea so we should have made ourselves more available for her.”
“Some games you execute down the stretch and some games you don’t,” added Parker. “The last three games that we’ve played we’ve executed pretty darn good down the stretch. It happens.”
The end result was a 70-68 loss – another Finals game between these teams decided by a single possession – and a 1-1 split as the series heads to Los Angeles and resumes on Friday. If there is a lesson to be taken away from these first two games in Minneapolis is that neither team is ever completely out of a game, no matter how big a deficit they face.
“I know that these two games have been — we’ve both gotten out to huge leads, and the other team has just fought back,” said Parker. “What that says to me is, yeah, no lead is safe, and you’re never out of the game.
“In the first half I feel like if we could take a couple of those possessions back and we could be told at the end of the game it’ll be a two-point game, I know I would I do a lot of things differently, and in the Finals you can’t have that. You should play every possession because every possession is important.”