A couple of weeks ago (Oct. 20), the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks played in Game 5 of the best-of-five WNBA Finals. The four previous games had been exceptional. The Sparks stole Game 1 on a buzzer beater from guard Alana Beard. Minnesota roared back in Game 2, dimming the Sparks by 19.
After superhuman Candace Parker’s 24 points in Game 3, LA jumped ahead 2-1 in the series. In front of Kobe Bryant and his family at Staples Center, they had the chance to win the ‘ship on their home floor in Game 4, but Lynx guard and 3-time WNBA champion Maya Moore showed the Bryants something different. Moore dropped 31 that night.
Considering the teeter-totter nature of the series in the first four games, I knew Game 5 would be just as competitive. The stage was set Thursday night: superstar vs. superstar, dynasty vs. revamped franchise. My popcorn was popped, the butterflies in my stomach were flapping around, and I was pumped. This was going to be fun.
And fun it was. So much fun. The biggest lead either team ever held was eight points. In the last 23 seconds, there were four lead changes. Candace, Maya, and Nneka Ogwumike all leaned in and played like champions. You should have watched the whole game, but if you didn’t here are the last 23.7 seconds and here are four major thoughts I had:
1. Hold up -- is anyone watching this?
I’ve covered the WNBA for about a year, starting in Los Angeles last season with the Sparks, even dappling with the Washington Mystics and Chicago Sky. It took me a while to come around, but I truly became a fan of this brand. These women play basketball the way basketball should be played. There’s no showboating, no players taking 50 shots in a single game, pace and space is standard operating procedure.
True basketball fans watch the WNBA, but was anyone actually watching this game?
ESPN announcer Ryan Ruocco said before the game they were “expecting record crowds” at the Target Center in Minnesota. In fact, the Minnesota Star Tribune reported that Game 5 was a true sellout and best-attended finals game since 2007.
Minnesota Timberwolves Karl-Anthony Towns (in a Maya Moore jersey) and Andrew Wiggins were there, so were Ricky Rubio and Magic Johnson. The Lynx fans were boisterous and loud. In my game notes, I scribbled, “this crowd is lit.”
At halftime, WNBA President Lisa Borders said overall attendance was up 4.6 percent, and league social media use was up on all platforms. I was alone watching on my couch, but maybe I wasn’t the only one.
2. Nneka Ogwumike is my worst nightmare
I played basketball from third grade to my senior year of high school. Since I was freakishly tall at a young age, I was in charge of guarding the other big girls. They were few and far between in elementary school rec league, but they started to catch up to me during AAU in middle school.
By high school, I was spending 32 minutes four nights a week guarding massive mounds of women. As much as my knees and back could take boxing out 6-foot-3, 230-pound 17-year old girls, at least they stayed pretty stationary around the key and tired easily.
Which is why Nneka Ogwumike is my worst nightmare. Nneka is fast, active, smart, and relentless. The woman is an MVP for a reason. She crashes the boards tirelessly; she averaged 9.1 rebounds a game during the regular season and had 12 rebounds on Thursday night, including the two she got that led to her game-winning shot.
She moves so well in and around the lane, trying to keep track of her should be a defender’s singular task. Nneka has a degree in psychology from Stanford and graduated from the Tara VanDerveer School of Basketball. She never fouled out in a game this season. Nneka would have outworked me, outsmarted me, and driven me crazy.
3. The Sparks are going to win
With 3:47 left in the fourth quarter, the Sparks were up 66-63. The Lynx had executed an expert defensive possession and LA guard Kristi Toliver found herself alone on an island dribbling around the left side of the court.
Making matters worse for Toliver, 6-time WNBA All-Star, and 2011 Finals MVP Seimone Augustus was guarding her. With the shot clock at :02, all Toliver could do was heave it up there, well behind the arc, falling down to her left. Miraculously, improbably, unbelievably, the ball went in.
When crazy stuff like that happens in big games, when people like Kristi Toliver make shots that have no business going in, that’s when championships become tangible. If Toliver was making insane shots like that, I couldn’t help but think this might just be LA’s destiny.
4. Great, Candace, now I’m crying
Candace Parker made me cry on Thursday. It wasn’t because she dunked and I was overwhelmed by what it meant for women, it wasn’t because of a cute Instagram post she shared of her daughter, Lailaa.
It was because after the Sparks won in such dramatic fashion and ESPN’s Holly Rowe asked Candace what the moment meant to her, she was overwhelmed with emotion. In between Parker’s own tears, all she could say was, “this is for Pat.”
Pat Summit, the legendary Tennessee basketball coach who coached Parker in her years as a budding superstar, died this June, five years after a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
It was the tragedy on a list of personal setbacks for Parker within the last year or so. She and the Sparks lost in the semifinals to the Lynx in 2015. This summer, she was left off the 12-woman Olympic roster for the games in Rio de Janeiro. All season, Parker played like someone with something to prove.
She did that Thursday night. Candace Parker proved she is one of the greatest basketball players ever. When faced with adversity in this series, she rallied her teammates. When the Sparks needed a bucket, Candace delivered. Her leadership, her grace, and how hard she can ball is unmatched.
After the game, Sparks coach Brian Agler said, “I’ve never been around somebody that has been critiqued so hard,” talking about Parker. “And I’ve not ever been around anybody that I’m more happy for than Candace.”
I think Candace deserves this. I’m happy for her too.