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WNBA Finals Practice Report (Sat. 23): Gearing Up For Game 1

MINNEAPOLIS –  With tip off to the WNBA Finals 2017 less than 24 hours away the Sparks and Lynx hit the hardwood at Williams Arena to get in their final preparations before the epic rematch of the these talent-laden rosters gets underway on Sunday at 3:30 ET on ABC.

Here are the top storylines from both teams practices heading into Game 1.

Homecourt Advantage

The Lynx suffered a heartbreaking Game 5 loss in last year’s Finals to L.A. and this year all signs point to another all-time classic that has the makings of a series that will need five games to decide a victor. For Cheryl Reeve this means getting her team ready for a matchup that could play out over an extended period of time. So, for a second consecutive Finals, the Lynx will have a winner-take-all Game 5 on their home floor in front of their raucous fanbase. While last year’s Finals didn’t go as planned, the Lynx again dominated the regular season and in doing so finished the WNBA’s best record (27-7) and ensured themselves the possibility of hosting a Game 5.

“We wanted first place for a reason because we think that the odds are with you if you have three home games,” Coach Reeve said after practice on Saturday. “And we should expect that it will go five games. So trepidation about a Game 5, no. That’s a long way away from now but trepidation, no.”

Rematch Inevitable?

Heading into the 2017 regular season you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t expect it to be Sparks-Lynx again playing for a title at the end of the year. Both teams returned their core pieces from the previous title runs and now both had another year of experience under their belts. As 2017 played out it became abundantly clear that L.A. and Minnesota were leading the pack competing for this year’s championship. The league’s MVP Sylvia Fowles shared a similar feeling about who she believed the Lynx would face in Finals.

“I knew from a long time ago that it would probably be us two back in The Finals. Just from how both teams stood out throughout the season and we’re similar in a lot of areas,” Fowles said. “I kind of had a feeling that we would meet the Sparks again in The Finals.”

Mindset Means Everything To Minny

There’s no doubt that losing a Finals series in a fifth and final game in front of your home fans is a tough way to lose but it also teaches you the importance of approaching each game with a certain demeanor or mindset. For the Lynx, the key word for them has been “aggressive,” as their up-tempo, end-to-end style of play thrives on been aggressive on both ends of the floor. One of the key pieces in setting the tone for Minnesota is Seimone Augustus who’s bravado on the floor gets others around her even more into the action.

“Be aggressive,” Augustus said when asked about Minnesota’s mindset heading into this year’s Finals. “We’re going to leave it all out there on the table. There are five games left in your season – period. You don’t want to go out there and pace yourself for anything. You want to get after it from the tip.”

Get Off To A Quick Start

Playing in the postseason and in particular in the WNBA Finals is nothing new for Minnesota as they’ve now played in six of the last seven, so they know better than most what it means to win game one. In fact of the course of those six trips and three titles they’ve only won a title one time after dropping the first game, a clear indication of just how vital it is to take that first game.

“It’s so tough [to lose Game 1], it puts the pressure on yourself,” Augustus said. “If you drop Game 1 then you have to win Game 2 because then they’re looking at a closeout situation on their court. Also, if you drop Game 1 and you win Game 2, you still have two games in the hornet’s nest on their home court. So Game 1 is pivotal for us to try to put the pressure on them.”

Familiar Foes

Sunday’s Game 1 will be the 12th meeting between these two teams since the start of last season. With such familiarity and a ton of game film to study on one another, will there be an strategic surprises or will this Finals ultimately come down to which team executes the best over the next five games.

“It’s all about execution,” Augustus said. “There’s maybe two or three plays that they’ve probably implemented into their game plan over the last week or so, but for the most part we know every play that they’re going to run and they know every play that we’re going to run.

“It’s just who wants it more. We know it’s going to be a pick and roll, whose going to stop it? Are you going to let them come off and get to where they want to or are we going to put some pressure on them and keep them out of it? It’s really just execution and wanting it more than the other team.

L.A’s defensive ace Alana Beard agreed that with a matchup of two elite teams, this series will come down to the little things.

“Obviously, some strategy comes into play, but with the team being at the level that they are, it comes down to 50-50 balls, intangibles and who wants it more,” she said.

No Place Like Home

With their usual home – the Target Center – undergoing renovations this summer, the Lynx have been on the move this season. After playing their regular season home games at the Xcel Energy Center, the Lynx’s playoff home has been Williams Arena on the campus of the University of Minnesota.

The Lynx championship banners are hanging in the rafters, their logos adorn the court as they try to make a building dubbed “The Barn” feel like home for their final three home games of the year.

“This place is already home; we’re in Minnesota, right?,” said Augustus on Saturday. “Wherever we are in Minneapolis its home because our fans have been great with getting to places [to support us]. They got to Xcel Center [during the regular season] and for some of them that’s 20, 30 minutes away from their home or maybe even further. And here [Williams Arena] I feel like its around the corner for some people.

“We’re going to pack the place and our fans do a great job of coming here with their friends. I see people with their own personal shirts made, and their hats, and all this kind of stuff. They’re going to make it home and the building will fill up with Los Lynx nation.”

While the Lynx brought their championship banners in to hang from the rafters, there is another banner that was already there – as University of Minnesota alum Lindsay Whalen’s No. 13 has been retired by the school.

“Yes, it’s definitely cool,” Whalen said about playing the Finals in her former college arena. “I’m enjoying it and trying to enjoy every game.”

Whalen’s Status

After missing the final 12 games of the regular season after suffering a broken bone in her left (non-shooting) hand, Whalen returned to the Lynx for their semifinal series with Phoenix. In three games against the Mercury, Whalen averaged 6.3 points, 4.7 assists in 19.8 minutes per game – nearly four fewer minutes than her regular season average – with her minutes increasing with each successive game.

How important is Whalen to Minnesota’s success? The team was 20-2 before she went out with the injury then lost five of their next nine games without her as their lead over L.A. for the No. 1 playoff seed became dangerously small down the stretch of the season.

From watching her in practice and listening to her teammates, Whalen looks ready to lead the Lynx as they chase their fourth title.

“We’re not concerned,” Augustus said. “Weezy is probably the toughest player on this team as far as being mentally tough and physically tough. Her hand is probably bothering her, but you’ll never know. She’s still going to go out there and fall on the floor, try to get deflections, block a shot, make a shot, she’s still going to be aggressive while she’s out there.”

Lynx sixth woman Renee Montgomery, who filled in as the starter for Whalen while she was out, doesn’t expect to be back in the starting lineup anytime soon.

“I think if she takes a good whack on the hand, she’s going to give a whack back and she’s going to keep playing,” Montgomery said. “I think she’s good. That’s not even a thought process for me. Yeah, she’s good.”

Eager To Get Started

After both teams swept their semifinals series, there has been a week off between the semifinals and Sunday’s Game 1 of the championship series. While both teams utilized the time off to prepare for this rematch, they are definitely ready to get things underway.

“I’m just excited because we haven’t played a game in a week,” Moore said. “We want to bring everything we have and be ourselves.”

“The build up is good for us,” Augustus said. “As older players we need this rest. We get to really go through and
game plan what we’re going to do and drill it to get ready for the game and then actually some repetition in before the game. I don’t think it would really go well for us if it was day off then playing the next day without having the proper time to prepare.”

The Sparks arrived in Minnesota on Thursday and held a practice on Friday in Williams Arena to help them prepare for Sunday.

“I thought Brian [Agler] did a good job of creating some live actions during the practices, and trying to remain in game-shape with that to create a sense of urgency and get better in different areas,” Chelsea Gray said.