MINNEAPOLIS – The 2017 WNBA Finals between the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx have been like a classic heavyweight fight with two behemoths trading shots in the middle of the ring, neither willing to go down or give up.
One swings and hits, the other absorbs the impact and fires right back. Punch. Counterpunch. Back and forth until the final bell rings and a winner is announced.
The final bell for the 2017 WNBA Finals comes Wednesday night at Williams Arena in Minneapolis – the site of Game 5 of the championship rematch. After trading wins through the first four games, the series comes down to one final game to determine a champion.
This is not unfamiliar territory between these teams. The 2016 Finals played out the same way: Sparks strike first, Lynx bounce back, Sparks take command, Lynx stay alive and force Game 5, Sparks win the title in the closing seconds.
In each of the past two Finals, neither team has been able to win back-to-back games. Their opponent always responds with a fury the next game out.
“For these two teams it probably signifies the competitive fire that exists in each team, the confidence to bounce back in each team, the willingness to stay true to your identity, all of those things,” said Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve following Tuesday’s final practice session.
“So winning two in a row against a really, really good team is hard to do. No matter what you say, no matter what you tell them to safeguard against … sometimes it’s just the will of another team that prevents you from doing what you want to do.”
The Sparks opened the series by outscoring the Lynx 28-2 in the first eight minutes of Game 1. While the Lynx responded and took the lead in the final minute, the Sparks came away with the win thanks to a Chelsea Gray jumper with two seconds to play.
After absorbing not only the last second defeat but the inexplicably slow start to the game, the Lynx came back two days later and landed their counterpunch. They outscored Los Angeles 28-10 in the opening quarter – flipping the script from Game 1 – and held on for a two-point victory to send the series to L.A. tied at 1-1.
After falling behind early in Game 2, the Sparks battled back and put themselves in position for a game-tying or game-winning shot attempts. But despite having two possessions in the final 13.4 seconds, the Sparks never got a shot off, as they turned the ball over on both possessions.
Fueled by the disappointing end to Game 2 and behind a raucous crowd at the Staples Center, the Sparks landed their counterpunch in Game 3. L.A. held Minnesota to eight first-quarter points and held starting guards Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus scoreless for the entire game as they took Game 3 by 11 points to give themselves a shot to win the title on their home floor in Game 4.
Reeve knew that her veteran backcourt would respond with their season on the line. And they did, helping Minnesota to an 80-69 win to send the series back to Minnesota for a decisive Game 5.
“We’re competitive and so you want to bounce back and the [players] that didn’t play well in the game you lost, they’re going to play well the next game because they’re great players – ours and theirs – they’re great players who are prideful and they know what they didn’t get done,” she said. “They felt like they disappointed their team and they’re at the top of their game [the next time out].”
With Game 5 on the horizon, the pattern says that it is L.A.’s turn to land their counterpunch and take home their second straight title.
“I mean I hope so for our case,” Sparks forward Candace Parker said with a laugh. “But at the same time I think as a team – we’re a team, they’re a team that we have to do certain things to win. And when those things are taken away we have to get back to that within that game. I think the first team that can do that usually wins.”
For Augustus, it’s about finding a way to replicate the energy that they have played with when coming off of a loss and bringing that into Game 5.
“I think we saw how we came out in Game 3, how flat we were, just no energy and Game 4 was a lot different,” she said. “So if we can bottle that up and bring that into Game 5 where you know the first five minutes of the game is going to be really intense because everybody’s trying to establish themselves early, that could be the difference in the game for us, as far as pushing forward and being better than we were when we were alternating games.”
Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike – who has been in her own heavyweight bout with Lynx center Sylvia Fowles over the first four games of the series and has five stitches to show for it – said the pattern of the losing team responding the next game is natural, but expects both teams to take things to another level on Wednesday.
“I think naturally that just kind of happens,” she said. “But there’s so much on the line that you have to expect it from both teams and then I think they really ride high on playing at home so that’s also going to feed into their character on the court.”
“It’s interesting, but I guess it says that we’re both good at adjustments,” said Beard about the teams trading wins. “But at this point there are no more adjustments to really be made other than going out and doing what’s needed to be done in order to get what we want and that’s a championship.”
Not only has neither team been able to string two straight wins together in either of the last two Finals, in the last 12 games between these teams, the composite score is an even 908-908. That’s 480 minutes of basketball with absolutely no separation.
In 12 matchups since the start of last year's #WNBAFinals, the @LA_Sparks & @MinnesotaLynx have played to a draw.
G5: Wed., 8 pm/et, ESPN pic.twitter.com/zUQmLL7GK9
— WNBA (@WNBA) October 2, 2017
“I don’t think this is going to end in a draw,” said Sparks coach Brian Agler.
That much is safe to say. Whether it takes the standard 40 minutes or needs an overtime period or two, a winner will be determined on Wednesday night.
Will the Sparks land the last counterpunch and walk out of Minneapolis with the WNBA title for the second straight year? Or will the Lynx be able to avoid that counterpunch and become the first team to win consecutive games in these Finals.
“You’ve got to bob and weave a little bit,” said Augustus. “We’ve got to duck those counterpunches. We need to throw our punch and try to get out of the way.”