THE MN LYNX VS. LA SPARKS 2016 @ TARGET CENTER - CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
All they needed to win by was one point.
By Mike Peden
The Los Angeles Sparks turned that margin to a chant as they celebrated their first WNBA championship since 2002, knocking off the Minnesota Lynx 77-76 Thursday night at Target Center in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals.
Many will look at this championship as a crowning achievement for Candace Parker, who was named Finals MVP. With a stat line of 28 points and 12 rebounds, her determination to finally end a narrative of coming up short in post-season play produced incredible results.
"My teammates were doing their part, I had to step up and do mine. You can't control if shots go in or if shots don't, but what you can control is defense and rebounding," she said.
Parker wasn't exaggerating on either aspect. Nneka Ogwumike added 12 points and 12 rebounds, and Chelsea Gray exploded in the second half to finish with 11 points. After being dominated on the boards in Game 4, the Sparks took a more assertive position on Thursday, finishing with a 33-27 edge in rebounds.
No stat comparison was needed to sum up an instant classic. Such an ending seemed improbable with 3:01 left in the fourth quarter, when Los Angeles led 71-63, their largest margin of the night. Minnesota answered quickly to even the score, with the tying basket coming off a Lindsay Whalen steal.
Controversy would ensue on the next Sparks possession. Ogwumike was given credit for a turnaround jump shot with 1:12 left in the quarter, but replays showed the ball was still in her hand when the shot clock expired. Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve called a timeout in hopes of giving officials an opportunity to review the play, but to no avail.
"They didn't understand it was the end of the clock. They didn't hear the shot clock," she said. "Whether it was the eight-second call in the game in LA -- doesn't matter. It's not enough just to apologize and send out a memo that they got something wrong. These players are so invested, and something must be done about the officiating in this league because it is not fair to these great players that we have."
There is no way to assess the impact of that miscue, partially due to a flurry of lead changes all the way through the final possession. Maya Moore hit a mid-range jumper with 15 seconds left to give the Lynx a 76-75 lead. With both teams out of timeouts, the Sparks had to hustle, and hustle they did. Ogwumike rebounded a miss from Gray, then was blocked by Sylvia Fowles down low, but she recovered that miss for the game-winning put-back with 3 seconds left.
"I was really impressed with our poise down the stretch," said Los Angeles head coach Brian Agler. "We continually made plays."
During the post-game press conference, Agler played "Rocky Top" on his cell phone. The tune is heavily associated with the University of Tennessee, Parker's alma mater. Her college coach, Pat Summitt, died in June from complications related to Alzheimer's Disease, and Agler wanted to open the press conference with a tribute to Parker for her perseverance in a trying season; in addition to Summit's death, Parker was omitted from the United States national team during their gold medal run at the Olympic Games in Rio, and she was also left off the All-WNBA first and second team at the end of the season.
"She stayed on the high road, fought through everything, stayed with it," Agler said. "She went through...what our team went through, the ups and downs."
Parker fought tears as she discussed her former mentor during the award presentation. Upon further reflection, she found a resemblance between this series and the instruction instilled by Summitt.
"(Agler) has been telling me this all year, that this series really was about defense and finishing plays rebounding, and I heard that for four years at Tennessee," Parker said. "This last year has been really tough for me personally, and my teammates and my coaches were always there for me."
Parker was not alone in her quest for validation. The championship was just as meaningful for Alana Beard, whose tenacious defense and steady offensive contribution aided the Sparks significantly. She joined Los Angeles in 2012 after missing two seasons with Washington due to several injuries, and now has a title to show for her dedication.
Agler made some history as well, becoming the first head coach to lead two WNBA teams to championships. His first title came in 2010 with the Seattle Storm.
For Minnesota, their third and best chance to achieve consecutive championships came up short. However they felt about the uncalled shot clock violation, they were more disappointed with their inability to execute in the game's critical stages.
"In the last five minutes, we weren’t getting the stops needed. In the end, it came down to a rebound. We knew those were going to be the keys. We just didn’t get it done," said Minnesota forward Rebekkah Brunson.
Indeed, the Lynx had ample opportunity to take control of Game 5. Whether it was poor positioning for rebounds or missing several shots down low, not converting on those chances will sting more than one missed call.
No one will dispute Minnesota's talent or consistency, and if anyone tries, they still have three championships to their credit. They did everything possible to uphold their standard in an Olympic year, beefing up the bench to reach unparalleled depth. In the process, they discovered assets like Natasha Howard, who could serve an integral role on this team in future seasons. Their core is all signed to multi-year deals, and you can bet they will engage in a mission of redemption one more time. Age may be a concern, but for most of the 2016 season, the Lynx demonstrated that acumen and continuity can be effective countermeasures.
"We always talk about great players making great plays. Throughout the five games, you saw people rise to the occasion," said Minnesota guard Seimone Augustus. "This was what we needed, and I hope that we gained a lot of fans from around the world."
Moore led the Lynx with 23 points and 11 assists. Augustus added 17 points.
BY THE NUMBERS
14: Number of offensive rebounds for Los Angeles, including 6 from Ogwumike. The bevy of offensive boards gave the Sparks a 15-5 edge in second chance points. Minnesota was considered the better rebounding team entering this series, but their performance was inconsistent, and Los Angeles took advantage in Games 3 and 5.
"If you rebound and play good defense, you’ll win," Fowles said. "At the end of the day, L.A. came to play and ended up winning."
44: Points in the paint for Los Angeles. They out-scored Minnesota by 14 in this category, with Parker and Ogwumike attacking the lane or converting second chance looks inside. Their efforts were noticeable in the second half, helping the Sparks score 49 points after being held to 28 in the first 20 minutes.
"They scored in the paint at will," Reeve said. "(If) we go look at a shot chart right now, it's not going to be pretty."
THE MN LYNX VS. LA SPARKS 2017 @ TARGET CENTER - CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Ageless Lynx ‘go fourth’ to another WNBA title
By Mike Peden
The Lynx out-muscled the Los Angeles Sparks in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals Wednesday night, winning the deciding game of the series 85-76 at Williams Arena. Minnesota, the oldest team in the league, proved that age doesn’t hinder motivation.
“I just can’t even impart to you how special this group is…this is incredible times in Minnesota sports
history and obviously in WNBA history,” Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve told reporters after the game.
In a clever nod to Minnesota’s odd-year supremacy and rivalry with Los Angeles, a fan brought a sign that read “Odd has never been more even.” The Lynx ensured that statement was accurate by getting the early jump, taking a 7-0 lead and never looking back. In a series where the team who surged in front first held the upper hand, it was a crucial step in Minnesota’s favor.
“We knew it was going to come down to our starters and their starters. Obviously that was how the series was defined,” Reeve said. “I thought we showed a will to win.”
Indeed, Minnesota’s grit was evident throughout the game, helping them withstand several threats from Los Angeles. Late in the second quarter, Lindsay Whalen (playing in her former college venue) won a scrum following a jump ball. She was subsequently fouled by Riquna Williams, and responded by urging her teammates and the 14,623 in attendance to keep the electric atmosphere humming. Minnesota did just that en route to a 41-35 halftime lead.
“That’s your job as a point guard is to read those things and make those calls and kind of feel the game, and when you’ve got amazing leaders and amazing players beside you, it’s easy to be able to do that, and we all just kind of gave it our all from that point on,” Whalen said.
Midway through the fourth, the Lynx clung to a 68-64 lead. On a Minnesota possession, the Sparks got a deflection that nearly caused a shot clock violation, but Whalen recovered the ball and found Sylvia Fowles, who went straight to the basket for an and-one.
“Everyone wants to talk about who scores, but it’s those plays in those moments that win a
game for you,” Reeve said.
Of course, no lead in this series was safe until the buzzer sounded. Implementing a pair of half-court traps in the closing minutes, the Sparks trimmed a 10-point deficit to three with 34.9 seconds left. The Lynx used their final timeout, and on the next possession, Maya Moore hit a 15-foot dagger that gave her team an 81-76 lead.
“You can’t wait for a team to come trap you before you respond, and eventually we said, ‘Whoever gets it, when we pass out of it, attack the basket,’ and that’s what Maya did,” Reeve said.
Picking up their fourth title in the last seven years, the Lynx are now even with the vaunted Houston Comets, winners of the first four championships in league history. With the Lynx having a knack of defying expectations based on age, more titles could be on the way. Plenette Pierson is retiring, but little else stands to interfere with Minnesota’s coveted cohesion.
“We’re in it for life, and that’s just an incredible blessing that I feel to be able to be around it every single day,” Reeve said.
Moore, who picked up 18 points and 10 rebounds, echoes those blessings.
“I don’t know if you’re going to get a more deep, committed, selfless group that we have right now,” she said.
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