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Expectations met: Lynx display their greatness

In a marquee match-up, the Minnesota Lynx defeated the Los Angeles Spark — a game with huge playoff implications.

Adam Pantozzi - Getty Images

Los Angeles, CA — Tonight’s marquee match-up may not have been what it was billed to be, but an ugly win is still a win in Minnesota’s book. In 40 minutes of knock down, drag out basketball, the play wasn’t always pretty, but that didn’t change the stakes.

“I don’t think either team played as well as we could have ... we just had to gut it out and make a few more plays and good decisions,” Maya Moore said. “They were resilient at the end of the game but we hung on and hit our free throws and came out [with] the win.”

Huge implications loomed large in the Staples Center Tuesday night. With the new playoff format, conferences no longer matter concerning playoff seeding. Given that the Sparks and the Lynx have gone win-for-win all season long, tonight’s game could ultimately serve as a tiebreaker. Minnesota rose to the challenge.

Despite the close finish, plenty of fans (and the Swish Appeal staff for that matter) were left asking the same question about two of the league’s superstars through three quarters: “Where are Candace Parker and Maya Moore?”

Moore arguably made the difference (could she hear what we were all thinking?) She would come back with a vengeance in the fourth quarter, scoring 12 of her 20 points in the final 10 minutes. Watching Moore in the final minutes was the definition of an athlete in the zone and just highlighted the championship mindset she has brought to Minnesota over her career. And while Moore was the undeniable star of the fourth quarter, it’s very clear that Minnesota needs everyone on their team to remain successful heading for the playoffs.

“I hope it’s in the 11 players that we have, our strength in numbers; like I just told the team when we subbed in the first quarter that’s when we really separated on the score,” Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said. “We got some flow and instead of going down we went up, and that’s what the bench has been doing for us all year long, the strength in numbers we have has kept us going.”

Sylvia Fowles and Nneka Ogwumike were quick to pick up the slack for their respective teams early on. In previews leading up to the game, it’s no doubt this was the match-up of the night to watch. Despite an obvious size difference, Ogwumike and Fowles offer one of the most interesting one-on-one match-ups in the league.

Despite taking a hard fall early in the first, Fowles would return to the game for Minnesota to drop 11 in the first half. She was matched move for move by Ogwumike, who had 11 of her own. A game like tonight’s makes it clear why Ogwumike is making a push for league MVP and has become a more vocal leader on the floor and in practice.

Los Angeles was up by as many as six in the first quarter, but Minnesota continued to dominate on the defensive end, which lead to them shooting 55 percent from the field in the first half. The Sparks didn’t play anywhere near the level they are capable of, and yet for the entire night, the game remained close.

As anyone watching the game at home heard, Reeve emphasized that her team would continue to “trap Toliver.” This allowed the Lynx to stifle the Sparks offense early on. It may be cliché to say offense sells tickets and defense wins games, but that doesn’t make it false.

Combine the defense with the instincts and ability to close out of Moore? The rest, as they say, is history.

“I feel like every game since the break has been relative to what the playoffs will be,” Ogwumike said following the loss. “Everyone will be coming out with their ‘A’ game, everyone is going to come out playing tough ... All variables aside, you have to come out and hoop.”

The Sparks did not play their best basketball of the season tonight, but with the new playoff format, there’s a good chance we could see both of these teams in a Finals as a rematch of their regular season games. If that’s the case, get ready for an insane best of five series.