In the words of the famous band Three Dog Night, “one is the loneliest number.”
However, for the Los Angeles Sparks and the Minnesota Lynx, the number one holds a lot more significance.
As we approach Game Four of the WNBA Finals, the Sparks hold a 2-1 lead over the Lynx. And for the Sparks, only one game separates them from being the first back-to-back champions since 2002, and only the second team to win four WNBA championships.
For the Lynx, win one more game, and they get a chance to go home to Minneapolis and earn revenge for the Sparks winning the title on their home floor last year.
Ladies and gentlemen, buckle your seats. We’re gonna take you on a ride through what to expect for this pivotal game.
If there has been a kryptonite to the Lynx’ league-leading offense, it has been the defense of the Los Angeles Sparks.
Don’t believe us? Ask Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve, who has given the Sparks’ defense all the credit when it comes to their performance.
“Well LA’s defense is what’s going on,” Reeve said. “I’m not afraid to give someone credit when they’ve earned it and they have really. It’s their identity, they’ve all bought into that. I recognize that and that’s something that we value as well.”
Minnesota center Sylvia Fowles happened to agree with that sentiment, though she also feels that her team isn’t executing on either end.
“I think it plays both ways. I think LA coming out and being physical and aggressive, but at the same time, I think we’re overthinking it on the offensive end. On defense, I think we’re overhelping a little bit too much,” Fowles said.
Both Fowles and Reeve have a point. In two of the three Finals games, the Lynx have been held to eight and 11 points, a stark contrast to their normal offensive input (through six games this postseason, the team has an offensive rating of 108.1). And the Sparks have been taking advantage of that slow offense, averaging 25.3 defensive rebounds a game.
The Lynx starters are aware of the pressure, though to some it isn’t as intense as it might seem. Guard Seimone Augustus made it clear that this is just as competitive as it has been every time the team has gone to the Finals, reminding everyone of just how dominant this team has been.
“What pressure? What pressure that we haven’t faced before? Six of the last seven Finals we’ve been a part of. We’ve won three championships in that run,” Augustus pointed out. “It’s not a pressure that we haven’t seen before. So, why would it be some pressure now that we haven’t dealt with? I don’t see it.”
That being said, Augustus didn’t dismiss the Sparks either, recognizing that this game might be their last of the season if the Lynx didn’t come out more aggressive, comparing it to a hockey game.
“I went to my first hockey game last year. I was like, “Man, they only stay on the hockey ice for like 30 seconds or maybe a minute, they’re not out there that long.” They give all they have within that 30 seconds or minute they’re on the floor,” Augustus said.
“That’s the same mentality that we have to have tomorrow. I may only be out for a stretch of a minute, but if I’m giving everything I have in that minute, that’s just the flow that we have to go with. That’s how we’re going to play each and every minute and second we’re on the floor.”
LOS ANGELES SPARKS
Looking at the Sparks on the court, you wouldn’t be chastised for thinking that this championship is already in the bag.
Don’t tell that to guard Odyssey Sims.
“Our mindset is to win. It has nothing to do with the championship and it has nothing to do with anything else,” Sims said after practice on Saturday.
“It’s another game, a very important game, but we can’t automatically think we haven’t won. We have to focus on what we have to do offensively and defensively to beat a very good Minnesota Lynx team.”
While the Sparks have gotten the better of the Lynx for most of this series, they recognize that there are still some serious flaws that need to be addressed. One issue that head coach Brian Agler felt needed addressing was the team’s struggles with the smaller lineups the Lynx would put out from time to time.
When asked about how he thought his team was handling the different lineups, Agler was optimistic, while also giving praise to Minnesota.
“I am hoping we keep improving against it,” Agler said. “They put a lot of shooters around Maya and Sylvia and that can put a different kind of pressure on a defense. I don’t know if they prefer to play that way because that means they have a lot of really good players sitting on that bench, and it does give them another option.”
The other ghost in the building for Los Angeles is the specter of Maya Moore, who in this same situation last year scored 31 points to send her Lynx back home for a winner-take-all Game Five. Agler made notice of how Moore’s performance in the second half of game three was reminiscent of last year’s Game Four.
“I envision Maya from yesterday’s second half, from how she played in game four last year,” Agler said. “I have the utmost respect for her abilities, how tough she is to defend from an individual standpoint and a team standpoint. I don’t know her really well, but I do know she’s a great individual.”
In the eyes of Sims and other Sparks players, how they start the game will be a massive factor into whether they can keep this series from going back to Minnesota. Center Candace Parker, who was last year’s Finals MVP, admitted that it may be harder than it looks, considering how well these two teams know each other.
“If you look at the way both of us make adjustments and do things, it’s tough,” Parker said. “I think it’s about who makes the best in-game adjustments. We both know each other so well. We know the spots on the floor that the other person wants to get to. It’s just about making plays on the defensive end and offensive end.”
Defensive Player of the Year Alana Beard explained that it also comes down to individual accountability.
“I think as individuals we have to make a decision as to what we want,” Beard said. “As an individual and then collectively that will all come together, but ultimately, we’re making a choice as to what type of team we want to be. Do we want to be the team from Game 2 or the team from Game 3?”
However, it doesn’t mean that the Sparks haven’t thought about the potential of clinching that magical fourth championship on their home court, the Staples Center. 2016 MVP Nneka Ogqumike took time after Saturday’s practice to talk about how good it would feel to end the series in Los Angeles.
“I think it would be huge, especially for the fans. For us to win one in general, every team wants to win one. That’s why we know we’re going to see a valiant effort from Minnesota tomorrow, but to be able to do it at Staples would be very special.”
Be prepared for more gutwrenching action between the Lynx and Sparks on Sunday, with the tip-off at 8 p.m. EST.