MINNEAPOLIS, MN.— If Game 1 was any indication, WNBA fans are in for another historically great Finals between the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx.
After one of the strongest starts in recent memory, the Sparks narrowly took Game 1 in the 2017 WNBA Finals, 85-84.
In the first quarter, the Sparks led by as many as 26 points, but down the stretch, they found themselves in yet another back and forth battle with the Lynx as the final 59 seconds of the game saw four lead changes.
Minnesota took their first lead with just 49 seconds to go in the game, after Seimone Augustus nailed a dagger three-pointer at the top of the key to put the Lynx up, 82-81.
Nneka Ogwumike answered immediately on the other end with a shot that was reminiscent of her game-winner in Game 5 of the 2016 Finals, (albeit from a different spot on the court) as she went over Sylvia Fowles in the lane to regain the lead.
After a missed lay-in from Maya Moore, Minnesota was forced to foul Essence Carson as L.A. advanced the ball. Carson, an 88 percent free throw shooter, would miss both shots giving Minnesota another opportunity to take control on the fast break.
Lindsay Whalen easily found Moore in transition for another lay-up on the right side of the basket, giving Minnesota a one-point lead with 6.5 seconds remaining.
L.A. called a timeout and was able to inbound the ball on the baseline in front of their own bench. Ultimately, the Brian Agler play worked to perfection for L.A.’s hot-hand, Chelsea Gray.
The Sparks ran a circular action that allowed them to inbound the ball to Gray, and that’s when she did what she was able to do well all night. Matched up with Augustus, Gray took a few hard dribbles into the middle of the lane and nailed the jumper with two seconds to spare, giving L.A. the 85-84 win.
“I think all athletes dream of that moment, you know, especially at this magnitude and at this stage, I think you dream of hitting that shot,” Gray said of her late game heroics.
“Last year it was Alana and then it was Nneka. I'm glad it went in. I think we drew up a good play, and my teammates had confidence in me once I got the ball and I knocked it down.”
“I think Chelsea, you know, not only was she hitting big shots, but she was dealing with a lot of pressure on the ball,” Agler said after the win.
Gray ended the afternoon with a team-high 27 points and six assists, a new career-high. The entire Sparks starting line-up ended the night in double-figures, as Odyssey Sims had 16 points, Candace Parker added 15, Ogwumike had 11 and Alana Beard chipped in 10.
While the ending was spectacular, the Sparks also couldn’t have asked for a better start.
L.A. imposed their will on Minnesota right from the jump, opening up the game with a masterful 12-0 run, during which Sims had five points.
The Sparks were able to hold Minnesota scoreless for the first 2:45 of the opening frame, until the Lynx scored their first bucket on a Moore jumper.
From there though, L.A. once again went on a whopping 16-0 run, and it seemed as though it was impossible for them to miss in any situation, whether out in transition, in the paint, jumpers or three-pointers.
While their offense was fantastic, it was clear that their defense fueled their stellar opening ten minutes.
Candace Parker had the ability to sag into the lane off of Rebekkah Brunson, and behind Beard’s intense ball pressure, LA. struggled to get any kind of offense going. Perhaps the most notable stat, however, was the fact that Minnesota was outrebounded 13-0 in the opening 10 minutes.
Despite the slow start, Minnesota fought back, outscoring L.A. 22-11 in the second quarter, and then coming to within just five points at one point in the third quarter thanks to some inspired play by Augustus, who scored eight points in the frame.
“If we didn’t think we had fight before, we definitely showed a lot of guts in the way we came out and fought after being down 26 points in the first quarter,” Augustus said.
“To be able to bounce back from that and lose by one, it says a lot about us. I’m looking forward to Game 2.”
They were also helped when head coach Cheryl Reeve moved Maya Moore to the four position, which essentially forced a match-up with Parker and made her unable to sag in the lane.
The Lynx were led by Moore, who recorded 27 points. Fowles had 22 while Augustus ended the game with 19.
“I know everybody is going to talk about what a great comeback it was, etc., but that's not the world we live in,” Reeve said after the win.
“That means absolutely nothing to us. It's more what we did in the early part of the game that we're focused on; that obviously was disappointing that happened.”
All in all, Sunday night’s game provided a great example of how quickly a game can change between these two teams.