The WNBA Finals series between the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks is thought by many to be a dream match up.
Both teams began the season strong, and took turns tying the league’s best season start mark until Minnesota handed Los Angeles their first loss in late June. The Sparks returned the favor three days later.
Each team had a midseason slump just before the Olympic break, and both rebounded to finish with the two best records in the WNBA. The Lynx and Sparks are each star-studded with veterans and exciting newer players, and the teams match up well at each position. Athletes on each team want to hoist this year’s trophy badly.
After a close Game 1 in this year’s best of five, each team has taken a turn at routing the other one. The Sparks lead the series 2-1 going into Sunday’s Game 4, which could go to either team.
But Minnesota and Los Angeles couldn’t come to the Finals with two more different storylines.
The Lynx have hauled in three league championships in five years, and are fighting to stay on top. They have a core group and a coach who have been together for a long time, contrary to many other WNBA teams.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Sparks, who haven’t been to a Finals since 2003, after winning back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002. Their core formed slowly and didn’t coalesce until this season. They have had four coaches in the last six years.
For both teams, the essential question is the same: can we stay together and win this series? But for Minnesota and Los Angeles, the battle toward that end has been very different.
“Bullseye on our back”
Lynx forward Maya Moore is used to winning.
She helped Connecticut win two National Championships and has won two Olympic gold medals with USA Basketball. Moore said it is “absolutely” more difficult to stay on top than it is to get there. But now the six-year veteran has a new challenge in having been with the same group of players since she was drafted to the team.
“It’s crazy to think about how long we’ve been able to have this core group together, to where I’m kind of in unchartered waters,” Moore said. “I’ve had it for two years, maybe three years, but six? It’s unchartered waters in finding that new, fresh motivation, and in wearing the target on your back.”
“It’s finding new ways to continue to remind yourself of different ways to get better and to value it. It definitely makes it harder to have to think outside of the box and look at people in different ways and have different conversations.”
The Lynx have had their losing streaks and slowdowns over the last few years – perhaps most notably in the 2012 Finals, when they lost to the injury-plagued Indiana Fever. But since then, they have won two more titles.
Seimone Augustus, who was drafted by Minnesota 10 years ago, said pressure and expectations come with winning.
“It’s very hard (to stay on top),” she said. “Every year for the last six years…we had a bullseye on our back, and any team that was able to pull off a win on us – it was like they won the WNBA title.”
Both Moore and Augustus said the team’s energy has waned at times, for whatever reason. But Augustus said they know what they need to go going into Game 4.
“I think the core group of our team as well as the new editions understand what it means to be at an elite level,” Augustus said. “Do we play at that level all the time? Of course not. But we grasp what it takes to be there and how hard it is to stay there. It’s a matter of doing what you need to do and getting the job done.”
Moore said gratitude helps her stay focused.
“There are two things I’ve been fortunate to be able to draw on,” she said. “One is just having a perspective of what a gift it is to have this opportunity, and to be thankful. That’s a deep underlying motivation. I’m always going to appreciate how amazing it is to have this gift. Then I have such an awesome team, and I know how special this is. The last few years of my life have been unbelievable.”
“It’s appreciating our assistant coaches and how they’ve stuck around and been awesome for us. It’s thinking of different reasons, because if you don’t have real reasons, it shows. It’s so easy to get complacent, so easy. You have to harness that issue, of getting complacent.”
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, hired in 2010, said she tries to prevent slumps by starting with the right personnel.
“No question……it’s human nature to get complacent once you’ve got (a title),” Reeve said. “You’ve got to have the right people – the ones who have that competitive fire. There are certain traits you look for. It’s making sure you have a culture of people who hate to lose. The ones who think ‘Oh, we’ve got one already,’ and ‘you can’t win all the time,’ it shows who those people are.”
“It’s definitely about having the right people when you’re pushing and driving them. Look at how much Maya has. Look at how much Michael Jordan had. They’re different because they still want to be better; they want the next one. When you’ve got that, it’s contagious.”
But Moore said there are challenges that come with her drive.
“I’m very intense, so it’s living with myself,” she said with a laugh.
There have been times over the last few years that the Sparks have looked downright dysfunctional. Though they drafted Candace Parker in 2008, Jantel Lavender in 2011, Nneka Ogwumike in 2012, and acquired Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard in 2010 and 2012, respectively, it wasn’t until this year that the team has played so much like a unit.
Their maturity was evident from the first time they stepped on the court, and as they racked up win after win, players kept talking about “just focusing on the next game” and not looking too far ahead.
Beard said Los Angeles came together when they started being honest with one another.
“It’s not a matter of what we didn’t know about each other, because we knew each other well. It was a matter of learning how much we wanted to sacrifice for each other; what the other person was willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team,” Beard said.
Parker used the same word to describe what has made the difference for the Sparks this year, who have hovered in the middle of the Western Conference standings for several seasons.
“I think we’ve had a huge evolution this year, from a personal stand point and a maturity stand point,” Parker said. “Everybody’s matured. I can’t say enough; I love this group. They’ve taught me a lot about everything.”
“The most telling thing is how we sacrifice for each other. There’s no doubt in my mind how everyone on this team sacrifices. When you sacrifice yourself for something that’s important to you to make the group better, it’s telling.”
Coach Brian Agler was very honest with the team when they continued to slump after the Olympic break. Beard said that made all the difference.
“We came out of the blocks very hot, and we had a moment where we were low and didn’t do the things we were capable of,” Beard said. “Coach made it a point to let us know we weren’t the best team in the league anymore, and that other teams had started catching up to us. When we understood that reality, we changed out mindsets and approached the game a lot differently.”
“That was the best thing he said to us all season, because you get to a point where you’re extremely frustrated with the way you’ve been playing and you can’t figure it out. What we had to understand was that we were not the best anymore. That was a turning point when he said that to us.”
Ogwumike said the transparency is new.
“We’ve come a long way; it wasn’t always like that,” she said. “We’re very honest with each other, open with each other.”
Parker made that level of honesty public after Game 3 Friday, in which she lead Los Angeles with 24 points. In the post-game press conference, she told reporters that she had been “non existent in every game we played Minnesota this year.”
“I went back and watched film, and my presence wasn’t there,” she said. “We had a game plan of just going to the basket and trying to be aggressive. I mean, I myself, my teammates played well in Game 1 and Game 2, and we were aggressive defensively, but I was just there.”
“We’ve worked too hard to get to this point to just be there. I appreciate my coaches and my teammates challenging me, and now we’re sitting here and going to Game 4.”
Beard said she watched the interview on tape later, and it moved her deeply.
“I started tearing up,” Beard said. “It shows growth. That shows extreme growth for you to look at yourself and publicly say I wasn’t there, I haven’t been there and I know if my teammates are working hard I have to do the same thing. To publicly announce that is some growth that I couldn’t be more proud of.”
Toliver said the Sparks’ slump ultimately helped them get to where they are now.
“We’ve had a lot of success, but I think we grew out of our slump,” Toliver said. “We had a lot of growth in that period and I’m glad it happened, because you don’t want to peak too early. It got us to come back to Earth and realize that we were the best team in the league, and then we weren’t.”
“Golden State won 70 games and then lost the whole (NBA Finals series last spring). They probably wish they would have won 50 games and won the whole thing. We just had to get ourselves back to where we were at the beginning of the season, at the right time, and we were able to do that.”
Keys to Game 4
A Sparks win Sunday gives them a Championship on their home floor. A Lynx win forces a deciding Game 5 in Minnesota. Both teams know the fourth game will be a hard-fought battle of intensity and poise.
“It’s going to be mano-a-mano – I’ve got to stop you,” Augustus said.
Toliver said Los Angeles has to begin the game like they did Game 3.
“We’re mindful that to win the series we had to bring that energy for 40 minutes. We have to set the tone and see how they react,” Toliver said.
Beard echoed the sentiment.
“I was happy with the way we came out, but we’re still not satisfied,” she said. “We understand this is a battle, and we’re going to come out with the same focus and intensity that we did last game.”
Moore said Minnesota will rise to the occasion.
“This team is primed for that kind of a comeback story, bouncing back,” she said. “What I try to do is focus on the moment.”
Whalen said her team has to get back into its groove.
“Playing at that championship level mentality – everyone has to play like that from the start, and the team who does that will win,” she said.
Augustus is anticipating a Minnesota win Sunday.
“Game 5 is going to be just as exciting for us this year as it was last year,” she said.
Parker, who has dreamed of a WNBA title since she was drafted, said it doesn’t necessarily matter to her whether the Sparks win at home or on the road.
“We could win it in the water, outside, on a clay court in Germany – I don’t really care, honestly,” she said. “I really don’t care, it’s gotten to that point.”