Professional Basketball

Lynx Fend Off Sparks to Take WNBA Finals Second Game

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MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota Lynx guard Seimone Augustus was fighting to get past a screen set by Los Angeles Sparks center Candace Parker, in order to keep up with Sparks guard Chelsea Gray, with ten seconds remaining on the clock in the fourth quarter of Tuesday night’s WNBA Finals Game 2. That screen may have been a blessing in disguise.

Minnesota Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson defends against Los Angeles Sparks center Candace Parker while Lynx forward Maya Moore prepares to help during Tuesday’s WNBA Finals Game 2. Photo by Abe Booker III

It forced Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson to switch and ended up trapping Gray in a double team. With just six seconds left on the clock, Gray tried making an outlet pass to guard Alana Beard, which Brunson deflected into the hands of Lynx forward Maya Moore, who passed it ahead to guard Lindsay Whalen who held it as time expired. Minnesota was able to hang on for a 70-68 victory in front of an announced crowd of 11,434 at the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena, known locally as “The Barn.”

“Well, these two teams… this is the way we like it, I guess,” said Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve. “Two teams that are really tough-minded, two teams that allow their defense to generate offense, so you know that whatever the lead is, it’s not enough. But overall, we were a much better defensive team today than we were in Game 1, and that’s how we won the game.”

The game was reminiscent of Sunday’s Game 1 when Los Angeles blew a 26 point lead to hang on by a single point. Minnesota opened the game with a fierce intensity and led by as many as 20 points early in the third quarter, in hopes of running the Sparks out of The Barn, as Parker was held scoreless and didn’t pull down a single rebound in the first half.

“I mean, they did a good job being physical, but you know, I didn’t have any rebounds, didn’t have any steals I don’t think,” said Parker. “Like there’s other things I can do besides score. You know, I can’t say it happens, because it shouldn’t, whether – to have zero rebounds going into the second half.”

The Sparks slowly battled back in the third quarter. Parker netted eight points and grabbed three rebounds while forward Nneka Ogwumike and Gray each scored six as the Sparks outscored the Lynx 24-15 in the third quarter. Los Angeles had cut the deficit in half, being down by 10 points, 60-50, as the fourth quarter began.

Los Angeles Sparks guard Chelsea Gray attracts a double team in the final seconds of Game 2 of the 2017 WNBA Finals on Tuesday night. The play resulted in a deflection by Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson which led to a Los Angeles turnover. Photo by Abe Booker III/Sportspage Magazine

“We talked things over at halftime. I think that our fight and our grit and our persistence was better defensively, especially in the second half, and forced some turnovers, got in transition, scored, started moving the ball and moving people a little bit better offensively,” said Los Angeles head coach Brian Agler. “I mean, I think everybody in here probably watched last year’s series. I mean, there’s tons of similarities. It’s not really surprising to me. I sort of expect every game to be like this.”

The shots weren’t falling for either team in the fourth quarter, a combination of tough defense and fatigue. The Sparks went 6-for-14 from the field, while the Lynx shot 4-for-14 in the quarter.

However, Los Angeles hit 5-of-6 free throws to Minnesota’s 2-for-4 free throw shooting down the stretch to finally come within striking distance.

With just 17.9 seconds remaining in the game, Ogwumike grabbed a rebound off of a missed 18-foot jumper by Lynx forward Maya Moore and then called for a 20 second time out.

Beard was trying to inbound the ball but held on to it too long and was called for the Five Second Inbounds turnover with 13.4 seconds remaining.

“I didn’t see anyone open, but with that being said, it’s my responsibility to do whatever I can to get the ball inbounds, and that didn’t happen,” said Beard.

Augustus, who didn’t play as aggressively against Gray in a similar position in Game 1, was not going to let that happen again.

“I know for one thing – we weren’t going to let [Chelsea] Gray get a shot. The five-second call – that’s just everybody locked in. We didn’t know who was going to get the ball. They have so many great players on the floor. Players were able to get in passing lanes and deny them,” said Augustus.

Just when it looked like Minnesota caught a break and could seal the game, they tripped. Literally.

Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore and Los Angeles Sparks forward Essence Carson prepare to do battle during Tuesday’s WNBA Finals Game 2. Photo by Abe Booker III/Sportspage Magazine

Augustus tripped as she was coming up to receive the inbounds pass. The ball careened off of her and went out-of-bounds giving the Sparks one last opportunity, which was halted by Brunson’s deflection.

“I tell her [Brunson] every day how much I appreciate her because she’s just such a pro and does the dirty work for us without really getting the glory that she deserved. I’m just grateful that she was able to be so successful in the things that she’s great at tonight,” said Moore.

Brunson is not a stranger to WNBA Finals series, and seems to play her best basketball on that stage. She has played in 31 Finals games, a league record, and also holds the record for minutes played with 819, and total rebounds with 187. Following the 2015 Finals Game 2 against the Indiana Fever, Reeve called her the “Band-Aid” suggesting that Johnson & Johnson use her in a celebrity endorsement of the product.

However, one person who was the glue for the Lynx was center Sylvia Fowles, who took the Game 1 loss personally.

“After getting chewed out and watching film for about two hours on all the things that we didn’t do right, we just tried to put that at the forefront of our mind about what we needed to do in Game 2,” said Fowles. “I went into Game 2 just focused on Game 2 and what it was going to take to win. Everybody took it to heart what coach had to say. We came out and made it our business to start out on the right foot.”

Fowles scored 13 points in the game, but her biggest contribution was on defense. She had notched her fifth Finals double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds by halftime, tying her with Brunson and Tamika Catchings for the most all-time in Finals history. By game’s end, she grabbed 17 total rebounds, 14 of which were defensive, both league Finals records.

Minnesota Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson fights through a Los Angeles Sparks triple team during Tuesday’s WNBA Finals Game 2. Photo by Abe Booker III/Sportspage Magazine

“That’s what you expect her to do. That’s what she’s capable of every night. It’s got to be top of the mind for her. I think she took to heart some of the things we talked about,” said Reeve. “She rebounded hard. She got hard ones in traffic. She was there early and went way up to get them. It’s every bit of what we needed. That’s what wins games. Both teams value those sorts of things and without those hard rebounds and consistent effort, the game looks different.”

Said Moore, “She does so many things for us. She has our back in so many ways, whether it’s protecting the paint, just being so reliable on the inside for us, cleaning up defensive rebounds. That’s such a huge part to winning a championship is being able to get those defensive rebounds. She’s grown so much and I’m just excited to continue to see what she’s going to do in the next game that we have because I think she’s just really owning everything that the coaches are giving her to do this year.”

Though scoreless in the first half, Parker still managed to lead all scorers with 17 points. Minnesota was led by guard Lindsay Whalen’s 14, though all five Lynx starters scored in double-figures. Fowles led all rebounders with 17, while Ogwumike pulled down 13 boards for the Sparks.

The first two games of the 2017 WNBA Finals are in the history books with the series tied 1-1. The series now reverts to Los Angeles for Game 3 and 4 at the Staples Center.

“Obviously now it’s a three-game series. We have home-court advantage, but at the same time, last year that meant nothing. This year I think we’ve proven it doesn’t really matter where we play. It really doesn’t. I think it’s going to be a difficult series, and that’s our job is to make things as difficult as possible on them,” said Parker.

Reeve also knows that both teams are capable of winning anywhere during this series.

“Look at the talent on both sides. Look at what both teams believe in, in terms of the intangibles, the defense, and so that’s why you get this. There are great players on both sides. I think we’re equally hard to play against, and so it’s evenly matched, and that’s why you get these great games,” said Reeve.

Game 3 of the 2017 WNBA Finals begins at 8 p.m. CT at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

NOTE: Sunday’s 2017 WNBA Finals Game 1 delivered a 0.6 overnight rating, the best overnight ever for a Game 1 aired on the ESPN networks. It was a 20 percent increase over last year’s Game 1. The top five markets were Nashville (4.6); Minneapolis (1.9); Birmingham 1.2); Hartford-New Haven (1.3) and Knoxville (1.1). The Los Angeles market rating was 0.7.

The Los Angeles loss broke an 11-game winning streak. Their last loss was an 83-69 loss at New York back on August 13.

 

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