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After Uncharacteristic Night From Backcourt, Minnesota Faces Finals Deficit

LOS ANGELES – In a series full of wild comebacks, Minnesota almost completed another one in Game 3 Friday night at STAPLES Center.

The Lynx displayed the resiliency of a team that has gone to six WNBA Finals in seven years. They overcame early foul trouble from Maya Moore, turning to reserve guards Renee Montgomery and Alexis Jones during some of the most critical parts of the game. And even on a night when Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus both went scoreless, the Lynx were right there with a chance to steal the win.

Ultimately, the Sparks went on a 10-0 run late in the fourth quarter to put Minnesota in a 2-1 hole for the second straight year.

“A more active L.A. team, an anemic offense that was not prepared for how hard the game was going to be,” coach Cheryl Reeve said after Minnesota’s 75-64 loss on Friday. “Our starters didn’t compete in the way that we had hoped that we would start the game. L.A. set the tone on those guys, and we just couldn’t get responses from them.”

Moore picked up her second foul early in the first quarter, which contributed to a slow start that saw Minnesota score just four points in the opening seven minutes. After sitting much of the first quarter, she was called for a third foul at the 8:34 mark in the second quarter and headed to the bench with her team trailing 19-12.

Moore was held scoreless in the first half of a playoff game for just the second time in her career.

But the Lynx kept it close, trailing just 32-26 at halftime thanks in large part to Montgomery and Sylvia Fowles. Montgomery finished the first half with a game-high 10 points, while Fowles had a pair of emphatic blocks in the final minutes of the half.

And Jones, the rookie who hadn’t played in Game 1 or Game 2, made the first of her three treys during a run that cut the deficit to two. She finished with nine points and four assists in her first Finals action.

“It was natural. It felt natural,” Jones said after the game. “I just went out there with confidence and wanted to make sure I was doing what I was supposed to do. I was just being me and making sure I could help the team out.

“It just shows that [Reeve] had confidence in me, that she trusted me. I just needed to make sure that I stepped up when my name was called.”

After her forgettable first half, Moore scored eight points in the third quarter to keep the Lynx within striking distance. Minnesota then started the fourth on a 7-0 run, pulling within a single point before the Sparks regained control.

During the fourth quarter, Reeve left Jones on the court instead of re-inserting Whalen or Augustus.

The rookie’s performance is certainly a positive takeaway, but Minnesota can’t afford another game like Friday’s from its veteran backcourt. Whalen finished with no points or assists in 12 minutes. Augustus was a glaring minus-18 as part of her own scoreless outing.

Sparks guards Odyssey Sims and Chelsea Gray scored 16 and 14 points, respectively.

“It’s hard to win a WNBA Finals game without your star players,” Reeve said. “In this series we’ve seen the team that has the starters that outplay the other starters wins the game, so we do find that important. However, I am really appreciative of the group that was in there, battling and giving us a chance to win the game. … In that group that you saw kind of turn the tide a little bit.”

In addition to Jones, reserve forward Natasha Howard saw seven-plus minutes of action on Friday after playing a combined three minutes in the first two games.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the play of Augustus, who had scored in double figures in every playoff game until Friday. She averaged 19 points on 63 percent shooting in the three-game sweep of the Mystics in the semifinals, and the perennial All-Star had a career season in the assist category.

With its young guards, L.A. turned up its defensive intensity on Friday, pressuring the Lynx from the moment they touched the ball and jumping into passing lanes. A raucous crowd at STAPLES Center helped the Sparks force 15 turnovers and concede just 13 assists.

Now, after falling into a 2-1 hole for the second straight year, the Lynx will need their veteran backcourt badly in Sunday’s Game 4 (8:30 PM ET, ESPN).

Last year, Minnesota stole Game 4 in L.A. to force what would be an instant classic Game 5. But the Sparks have been unstoppable at home this year, boasting a 19-1 record in L.A. including the playoffs. Overall, the defending champions have won 12 of 13 games dating back to mid-August.

“Game 4 is going to be hard. That’s what the Finals are about,” Fowles said. “We can’t make excuses for ourselves. We just have to find a way to get it done.

“That’s the only thing I’m thinking about, how we can get the win and take it back home.”