Los Angeles, CA—“Preparation is preparation. But once the games come, adjustments become preparation.”
Nneka Ogwumike’s words last Wednesday—uttered right before the Sparks hopped a plane to Minnesota for Game 1—ring so true now. Standing two games into this iconic Finals rematch, the fate of the Sparks and Lynx hang firmly in the balance. So now the “test of wills”—coined by Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve—and chess match of adjustments between coaching staffs ensue in Los Angeles for Games 3 and 4.
“It’s intense,” said Lynx guard Maya Moore. “It’s two heavyweights going at it, trying to inch out an advantage at every moment. There’s no question you’re seeing really talented players play.”
And the riveting 80 minutes of basketball at The Barn last week, certainly stirred up agonizing questions for both head coaches. Can Brian Agler find a way to silence Sylvia Fowles on the low block and especially on the boards—all while keeping his defense on high alert for Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen?
What can Cheryl Reeve draw up to neutralize a Sparks arsenal that includes the likes of Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, and Chelsea “Cold-Blooded” Gray? And let’s not forget Odyssey Sims, who seems to part the seas, when opponents give her an inch of sunlight to work with in the paint.
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Plus the all-important question: can each team maintain their level of play when leads are built against prideful, resilient opponents who never say die?
The rhetorical answer to all of these is obvious: easier said than done. But thankfully, the great basketball minds on both benches, and the superstars doing the work between the lines, offered their insights after practice on Thursday.
When asked what the difference maker will be in the series, 2017 league MVP Sylvia Fowles said it comes down to the details.
“Doing things that are going to take us out of our element-type of things—I think that’s what both teams are focusing on right now,” said Fowles. “We pretty much know what one another brings to the table. So it’s about doing the little things.”
Or ask another former league MVP in Moore. “Who’s going to execute their game plan on both sides of the ball with more effort and focus for 40 minutes is really what it comes down to,” she said. “The margin of error is so small that you never know which play is going to win it for your team.”
Aside from doing the little things right, Reeve made it clear that a strong start in Game 3 is an absolute necessity.
“I think both teams experienced not doing that,” said Reeve. “So I suspect a good start will be on both teams’ minds. It will be a test of wills—for sure in the beginning of the games—because both teams will try to establish themselves early.”
Asked what adjustments the Sparks contingent will look to make tomorrow, Agler echoed Reeve’s desire to start and finish well.
“Just our ability to sustain good play,” he said. “I think our defense needs to get off to a better start than last game. We seemed to be put on our heels. So we want to try and stay out of that.”
Count on future of Hall of Famer, Candace Parker, to profoundly sum up the remainder of the Finals. Execution of the minute details and mid-series adjustments will play a significant role, but the fundamentals still matter.
“No matter the tweaks, I think it comes down to rebounding, defense and urgency,” said Parker. “And obviously, you have got to knock down a couple shots.”
Parker hints at an element of this rivalry that cannot be overlooked. It is being played out between yes, supremely talented players—as Maya Moore astutely pointed out—but also between two squads with enormous pride. In fact, the only thing that might be flowing through these players’ veins in more abundance than talent, is desire. Competitiveness. Heart.
In the majority of cases, a great half of basketball or a flawless quarter of play is enough to win a game. But between the most skilled athletes in the world, with wills to match, it comes down to being one possession better.
With the aura — and unmistakable conviction — of a man who has coached his fair share of vicious playoff battles, Coach Agler foreshadowed what Game 3 will bring.
“I expect a very, very competitive and intense matchup. I think both teams will really go at it.”