By Rob Knox @knoxrob1
In a fitting conclusion to the WNBA’s spectacular 20th season, the deciding fifth game between the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx has the potential to be an epic showdown for the ages.
It makes sense that the battle between the two best teams in the WNBA this season is coming down to one game for it all at the Target Center Thursday night.
The game will be televised on ESPN beginning at 8 p.m. If everything plays out as expected, this game could have a transformational impact on the future of the league and how it’s viewed by casual observers and doubters.
Each major sport has had its magic moment.
For MLB, it was game six of the 1975 World Series between the Reds and Red Sox that lifted the sport and World Series to another level. In the NFL, it was the 1958 championship sudden death thriller between the Giants and Colts that made the sport a fan favorite.
College basketball had the 1979 NCAA title game between Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans and Larry Bird’s Indiana State. Five years later as professionals, the 1984 NBA Finals, won in seven scintillating games by Bird’s Celtics over Johnson’s Lakers, helped the league become popular.
Ironically, Johnson is now principal owner of the Sparks, having rescued the franchise several years ago from potential movement elsewhere on the left coast, potentially in the San Francisco Bay area.
There are plenty of delicious storylines in this decisive game. The biggest one is the Lynx’s quest to become the first team since the 2002 Sparks to repeat as champions. Furthermore, a Minnesota victory would tie them with the defunct Houston Comets for the most WNBA titles in league history with four.
Fortunately for the Lynx, history is on their side as the home team is 3-1 in game fives since the WNBA went to the current three-of-five Finals setup in 2006.
For the Sparks, they are seeking their third overall championship and first since 2002. A Sparks win would tie them with the Lynx for the second-most titles in league history.
Also, Candace Parker will be attempting to win her first WNBA title, which would be the missing piece to her sterling basketball resume.
The first four games have featured buzzer beaters, blowouts, brilliant individual performances, soul-to-soul defense by both squads, a key missed officials call late in the fourth game and much more drama than an episode of “Scandal.”
“I have no idea what to expect,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said about the fifth game following Sunday’s victory that forced the fifth game. “I know what to wish for, but you have no idea. You have no idea. We're just going to try to prepare our team and see what we can do. Like you said, I told our players this, it's an up-and-down series, never too high, never too low.”
The Lynx have been brilliant in the playoffs, compiling a 35-16 overall record. They are an amazing 24-4 (.857) at home all-time in the WNBA Playoffs. The Sparks remain atop the playoff win list overall, registering their 39th victory in game three’s blowout triumph in Los Angeles.
Minnesota is playing its second consecutive winner-take-all WNBA Finals game. Last season, it beat Indiana, 69-52. The last WNBA team to play in consecutive game fives was the Detroit Shock. The Shock beat the Sacramento Monarchs, 90-75, in 2006 before falling to the Phoenix Mercury, 108-92, in 2007.
History favors the Sparks in this matchup.
The Sparks have won twice at the Target Center this season, including the regular season. No team has lost consecutive games in this series.
Maya Moore was phenomenal in the fourth game going off for 31 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Moore, though, was the undisputed leader of the Lynx’s focus group. Aside from Moore’s fantastic fusillade, another reason why Minnesota won was because it outscored Los Angeles, 22-4, in fastbreak points and enjoyed a 41-25 edge on the glass.
“They’re a great team and they’re not going to falter,” Parker said. “Just from a technical standpoint, we have to rebound, that’s all it is. If we rebound, it limits them to just one shot and they’re not getting two and three looks at the basket. They killed us on the boards and second chance points. We know what we have to do.”
Minnesota displayed every ounce of its championship character, poise, resiliency and tenacity in the face of adversity to keep its season alive. Playing in a hostile environment and without key reserve and former all-star Janelle McCarville, who injured her back in the third game.
“We each won on each other's home court, and that's not easy to do,” Reeve said. “When you look at the home court that we have and our fans and you look at what exists here, it's a tall challenge, so credit to both teams for being able to get that done, and then now it's Game 5, which is what everybody was asking for, hoping for, and here we are.”
The Sparks could use the game three versions of Parker and league MVP Nneka Ogwumike. They combined for 45 points and were all over the court energizing their teammates with their hustle. However, in Sunday’s game, the pair combined for 25 harmless points. Los Angeles got a lift from Chelsea Gray, who scored a playoff career best 20 points.
Fortunately for the Sparks, head coach Brian Alger is a veteran coach who understands how to keep his squad together during tough times.
“We'll learn from this game, and we'll play better on Thursday,” Alger said. “We'll prepare, and we'll play better. I've been in this situation several times. The two ABL games, championships, we won in the fifth game. Not a whole lot different than tonight, but this experience, going through this, I could just sort of tell from our facial expressions in the locker room, this was new for them.
“We didn't lack desire to win, or a will. We competed hard enough. We've just got to put that back together and play with more poise. I think both teams will be much more fresh come Thursday. Both teams will have had a chance to get their legs back underneath them. I think it'll be competitive again on Thursday. That's what I anticipate.”