After enduring a comprehensive defeat in a Game 1 that many felt they had a chance to steal, the Los Angeles Sparks were left in a ‘win or go home’ situation for the rest of the series. But that was also the one key advantage they had for Game 2 on Sunday afternoon – this time they were at home. Not just in the city of Los Angeles, but unlike the first round actually at Staples Center where they belong, where the Sparks were 16-1 over the course of the regular season. It was time to step up, or their season was over.
The signs from Game 1 hadn’t been good for LA. Minnesota picked their defense apart, unsettled the Sparks constantly with their defensive pressure, and responded impressively when LA briefly threatened a comeback. If LA produced the same kind of performance, the venue wasn’t going to make much difference.
Unsurprisingly, at this late stage in the year, there were no changes to the starting lineups. Minnesota have been riding the same group successfully for two years, and LA has a very limited bench, so personnel changes were never likely. However, there were some noticeable alterations from LA once the game began. Alana Beard was taking on more of the point guard duties, taking Kristi Toliver away from the ball where she’d struggled painfully in Game 1. Defensively, the Sparks started out with a combo-defense that looked a lot like a ‘triangle and 2’, where the bigs are in a zone down low and the guards play man-to-man on the perimeter. A reasonable idea in principle, except that it left Toliver trying to guard Seimone Augustus – and that never seemed likely to end well for LA.
The Lynx were the team on top in the opening period, playing with more speed and confidence to their offense and slicing through whichever defense LA threw at them. They were finishing well on the break, Lindsay Whalen was getting to the rim, and Rebekkah Brunson was already all over the glass. They were also the only team drawing whistles and heading to the free throw line – which unfortunately left you with the feeling that the officials would notice the discrepancy and end up ‘evening the score’ later in the game. Referees really shouldn’t do that, but it happens far too often to be a coincidence.
While there were some other, smaller contributors, LA began the game offensively as they’d continue most of the night – with Candace Parker carrying them on her broad shoulders. She had some outstanding finishes around the rim in the opening period, helping keep LA within 25-17 at the end of the first quarter. Her steady scoring rolled straight on into the second period, and it became even easier when the referees began evening up the foul count. Minnesota couldn’t buy a call in the second quarter, LA started getting all the touch fouls, and two quick whistles against Brunson sent her to the bench. That opened up extra room for Parker, who was already scoring the vast majority of her points on moves deep in the paint. The Sparks went on a run in the closing minutes before halftime, Parker leading the way with her obvious desire to keep the Sparks’ season alive, energising the crowd in the process. A final fastbreak bucket for Parker closed the half by dragging LA within a point, down just 40-39 at the break.
LA mixed up their defenses and kept Minnesota on their toes much better in the first half than they had in Game 1, switching to their 2-3 zone or man-to-man after the triangle-and-2 they’d started with. There was also less switching on screens, a central aspect of their defense all season long, but something which the Lynx exploited frequently in Game 1. Offensively, LA kept away from the on-ball screens for Toliver that caused so many issues in the previous game, letting Beard run the offense or simply running plays quickly enough that the Lynx defense didn’t have a chance to produce effective pressure. When Parker goes straight down the floor and immediately receives the ball down low, then makes a quick move to score, there’s no opportunity to trap or force turnovers. There’s barely time to pause for breath. It made Toliver less of a factor than she sometimes is offensively, but between transition drives and taking her chances when the ball came out to her, she was still 4-8 for 8 points at halftime. Parker was already 9-11 for 18 points and 10 rebounds at the break, and Minnesota were yet to find an answer for her in this kind of mood.
However, between their quick start and the balanced scoring abilities of their starting lineup, Minnesota had still been in front after 20 minutes – the third quarter didn’t go so well for the Lynx. LA were still mixing their defenses, but it was their 2-3 zone in particular that seemed to be giving Minnesota some problems. It’s not a defense that LA have run all that effectively most of this season, but with Parker on a mission the center of the zone had a bit more solidity about it than usual. A Parker three had just tied the game at 50-50 when Brunson picked up another desperately cheap foul – her fourth – on another dubious whistle midway through the third quarter. That sent Brunson to the bench again, Minnesota tried Devereaux Peters at center with Maya Moore at power forward, and LA took off. Strangely, it wasn’t even Parker at the center of the run for LA. Alana Beard scored both on drives and via her much-improved jump shot; some impressive off-ball screening and movement broke Toliver open for jumpers; and Nneka Ogwumike had more opportunity to crash the glass with Brunson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin on the sidelines. Suddenly a 17-0 Sparks run had taken them up 62-50 late in the third quarter, and the crowd was going nuts.
LA’s lead hit 13 points seconds later – on another Parker three – but they were a little sloppy to close the third, and let the Lynx steal some momentum. Lindsay Whalen flipped in a ridiculous shot in the lane, with 22 seconds left, at which point LA should’ve held for the final shot. Instead, Toliver attacked and penetrated, found Parker under the rim, and she was stripped before she could finish – plus the ball glanced off Parker before falling out of bounds. That left the Lynx plenty of time to walk down the other end of the court and find Moore for a three that pulled them within 65-57 heading to the fourth quarter. LA should have been at least 11 points ahead.
Minnesota had 8 turnovers leading to 15 LA points in that third quarter alone, illustrating how loose they’d gotten with the ball and how effective LA’s zone had been. The Sparks even started the fourth pretty well, with Parker meeting Whalen at the rim for a block, followed almost instantly by another rejection on Brunson’s attempted putback. That’s the one aspect of defense where Parker doesn’t even have to think, where her natural athleticism and timing allows her to excel. Then Toliver found a little room on the baseline for a jumper that pushed LA’s lead back to double-digits.
But there was always going to be a Lynx run. LA knew it, Minnesota knew it, and all of us watching knew it. The question was how well LA could handle it and whether they could respond. It was the inevitable stars for Minnesota that produced when they had to. Augustus hit a jumper and a floater in the lane; Moore had a pair of threes right over the top of that LA zone; Augustus slid in for another layup; and then Whalen twice drove right around Toliver for finishes at the rim. Meanwhile, LA’s offense had started to look rattled. While the Lynx conversions had taken away the Sparks’ transition game, it also seemed to have stolen much of their composure. Suddenly LA were back to forcing jump shots and turning the ball over, often by dribbling right into the same traps that had destroyed them in Game 1. The second of Whalen’s finishes past Toliver gave Minnesota the lead back at 73-72 with 5 minutes left in the game.
From there it was a dogfight. Ogwumike and Brunson had matching offensive boards and putbacks at either end, but Moore added a pair at the line to take Minnesota up by three. Parker settled for yet another bricked jumper – while they’d been falling from anywhere earlier, it felt like a while since we’d seen her in the paint – before Augustus missed as well. LA were back in their 2-3 zone, and Minnesota were back to struggling to score against it. Then Parker stepped up yet again, both in the paint and out. A possession that featured four consecutive offensive boards for the Sparks was finally finished off by their relentless superstar at the rim, before Minnesota ran out the shot clock while again searching for a decent shot against the Sparks zone. Then LA were desperately lucky to retain possession when the ball was tipped out of bounds – it looked on replay like Ogwumike may have had the last touch, but it was too early for video to be used by the officials – leaving three seconds on the shot clock for LA to salvage something. The inbounds pass went high to Parker, and she took a couple of seconds to corral the ball. Her heave from at least 30 feet came down from the heavens and banked straight in off the glass, giving LA a 79-77 lead with 90 seconds left in regulation.
At that point, it seemed like the basketball gods might be on LA’s side, but the Sparks did themselves no favours with what followed. After a timeout in which ABC’s bleep button was a second too slow to stop us hearing “No f*cking threes!” from the LA huddle, that was precisely what they gave up. One simple pass from Monica Wright to Brunson, then an easy skip pass from Brunson back to Wright, who’d drifted into acres of space on the weak side, and she knocked down the triple to take back the lead for Minnesota. Terrible defense from LA, but that can be one of the weaknesses of the 2-3 zone. That’s why teams tend not to stay in them all night long.
After Beard drove into traffic and missed, Minnesota ran time off before Augustus missed a three, only for Brunson to tip out the rebound and Wright to track down the ball. That gave the Lynx the chance to run more time off, which they did before Wright missed another attempt from long distance. This time the rebound fell to Toliver, and fortunately for LA head coach Carol Ross was granted a timeout before Toliver’s wild attempt to put the ball on the floor and charge down court (she was just about to turn the ball over). Trailing by a point, LA had 6 seconds left to keep their season alive.
I hate to criticise coaches for what they draw up in end-of-game situations, because typically it’s done with lashings of hindsight. If the shot drops it was genius; if it doesn’t the coach is an idiot. But the play Ross went to didn’t make much sense at all. The one play that had been a nightmare for LA throughout this series was the on-ball screen, because whenever they ran it Minnesota double-teamed the ballhandler and caused LA no end of problems. It took Toliver out of Game 1, and Beard hadn’t handled it that well either – it was just that Minnesota were less anxious to constantly trap Beard than they were with Toliver. Also, Candace Parker had been carrying them all day long – a high screen with just six seconds left, when you know the ballhandler is likely to be trapped, leaves it unlikely that Parker will touch the ball. Surely options like off-ball screens for Toliver or Parker; a quick post-up for Parker inside; or a standard isolation play up top would’ve made more sense.
Anyway, what LA went to was a high pick from Parker for Beard. It didn’t even send Beard to her strong hand, because the screen took her to the right, and she’s left-handed. Brunson and Wright both tracked Beard, pushing her deeper and deeper into the corner. For what it’s worth, Moore slid over quickly to cover Parker up top, and the other Sparks options were unavailable on the far side of the floor – but Beard never looked anyway, so that was essentially irrelevant. She pulled up and fired from 15 feet on the baseline, the ball hit the rim and bounced away, and that was the end of LA’s season. Minnesota advance with an 80-79 win for a 2-0 sweep.
Parker did everything she could to drag her team to a deciding game. She played the entire 40 minutes, finishing 14-22 for 33 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 blocks. She was a dominant offensive force, spent most of the game down low where she belongs, and it just wasn’t quite enough. What else is there for the Sparks is the defining question for LA going forward. Ross gave up on her bench to such an extent that the starting five played all 20 minutes in the second half – not a single substitution. The Toliver/Beard backcourt is scary when they put everything together, and in many ways they cover for each other’s weaknesses, but they weren’t quite good enough against the talent of Minnesota. Toliver presents some challenges because she’s an electric scorer, but the mental side of her game and her ballhandling occasionally leaves something to be desired. Defensively, she doesn’t have the strength or size to cover many wings in the WNBA, which also makes it tricky to play her at off-guard alongside a small point guard. In the frontcourt, Ogwumike is a special talent and should become more consistent as she develops her pro game, but DeLisha Milton-Jones may not be around much longer. Ross has done a solid job with this squad in her first season, but there are still some holes and some question marks going forward.
So far, Minnesota are replicating exactly what they did last year on their path to a championship. A struggle to make it through the first round 2-1, then a 2-0 sweep in the Conference Finals. If that holds, they’re on for a 3-0 sweep in the WNBA Finals, starting on Sunday night. Game 2 against LA was much tougher going than Game 1. McWilliams-Franklin didn’t have much joy in either game, and when Brunson was out the Lynx had even fewer answers for Parker. They’ll almost be looking forward to the prospect of current MVP Tina Charles or 2011 MVP Tamika Catchings in the Finals as a relaxing alternative. It was their perimeter weapons that carried Minnesota through this game offensively. Whalen (8-15 for 17 points, 5 assists), Augustus (8-12 for 21 points, 3 assists) and Moore 6-13 for 20 points, 4 rebounds) produced the bulk of the scoring, as Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve also leaned heavily on her starters in the second half. The one bench player who did receive decent minutes down the stretch was Wright – her winning three was the only basket scored by a reserve in the entire second half. Reeve won’t be happy with the way Parker scored so easily inside, or the 39-23 rebounding advantage LA finished with, but the Lynx pulled out the win and that was what mattered. Now they can sit back and watch Connecticut and Indiana fight for the right to face them for the championship.
While the day didn’t end too nicely for the Sparks, it began with some pretty little trophies. Nneka Ogwumike was named Rookie of the Year, deservingly taking home the prize that had looked hers (barring injury) since the opening days of the season. It wasn’t unanimous, thanks to a couple of votes each for Tulsa’s Glory Johnson and Phoenix’s Samantha Prahalis, but it easily could’ve been. Ogwumike, Johnson and Prahalis were joined by Atlanta’s Tiffany Hayes and Tulsa’s Riquna Williams on the All-Rookie team. There are arguments that could be made for Seattle’s Shekinna Stricklen or San Antonio’s Shenise Johnson, but not ones worth making a big deal about.
LA’s Carol Ross took home the Coach of the Year trophy, narrowly edging out Connecticut’s Mike Thibault in second and Minnesota’s Cheryl Reeve in third. Ross wouldn’t necessarily have been my choice, and some of the defensive flaws in the Sparks seemed to persist all year without much correction, but the Sparks are certainly a much better team this year than last. There are always several worthy candidates for this award, and it’s always hard to choose between them.
Monday October 8th (today):
Connecticut @ Indiana, Game 2 (Sun lead 1-0), 8pm ET