The Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx will battle Sunday in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals in what could be a deciding game for the host Sparks, who hold a 2-1 series lead.
Last year the two teams faced the same situation, as Los Angeles won the first and third games of the series and the Lynx took the second. The Sparks then lost Game 4 at home and won the title in Minnesota.
Los Angeles had a full practice Saturday, while the Lynx had a shoot-around. Off court, members of both teams talked about the series and what it will take for their squad to win the fourth game.
Los Angeles Sparks
The tenth-year forward said playing a team they’ve faced so many times is a challenge.
“If you look at the way both of us made adjustments and do things, it’s tough,” Parker said. “It’s about who makes the best in-game adjustments. We both know each other so well; we both know the spots on the floor that the other person wants to get to. We know our offenses. It’s about making plays both on the defensive end and the offensive end.”
Continuing to play defense at a high level of intensity will be key for the Sparks, according to Parker.
“We have to continue to make them uncomfortable,” she said. “When we’re able to make things difficult it might not pay off right then and there, but maybe later it will. They’re physical, they play aggressive defense. That’s the mindset we have to have it making things difficult for them, and that’s on the offensive end too, in not settling for bad shots. We’ve got to make them move defensively, as they do with us.”
Parker said she is careful not to let her mind interfere with her play.
“You have to play basketball, but you also have to be tough,” she said. “It’s a lot about just doing it and not overthinking.”
Being in the right frame of mind is critical to success.
“It’s also a mindset when things aren’t going your way: continuing to fight through things and continuing to battle,” she said. “It might not pay off right then, but I wish I would have fought harder in Game 2. It’s like you don’t realize how big possessions are. Everybody’s always like, ‘the last shot!’ but it’s far more than that.”
Part of Parker’s growth over her time in the WNBA has been about being more calm, as she was in leading the Sparks to a Game 1 victory.
“Honestly, I think it’s about trusting the process and trusting the place you’re at,” she said. “It’s about striving to always get better. You’re right where you’re supposed to be.”
The WNBA defensive player of the year said that though Los Angeles dominated their opponents in Game 3, they shouldn’t get comfortable.
“I think we set the tone and we did exactly what we wanted to do, but we can play better,” Beard said. “You see it, you know who we’re going against. We’re both good teams, and we know each other extremely well, so it’s going to be the smaller things that make the difference.”
Beard said the team will have to take care of the basics to win.
“It’s a matter of making the right play and the right pass. It’s also about communicating,” she said. “We have a tendency on our team to know what the other person is thinking, but you can never get to that point. We have to communicate, whether it’s offensively or defensively, to get the job done.”
“It’s a mental grind, yes……but you want to limit (mistakes) in games like this. But it’s fun, and I think as a team we’ve got to the point where we understand we can control the things that we can, and that we have to somewhat surrender the outcome and not focus on the end of the game. We have to focus on playing possession by possession, and I’ve seen that growth in this team. Hopefully we’ll continue on that same path (Sunday).”
Beard said the Sparks’ destiny is in their own hands.
“We have to make a choice as individuals and as a team of who we want to be,” she said. “Do we want to be the team from Game 2 or the team from Game 3? Because in Game 3 we made a choice to be the aggressor, whether it was offensively or defensively. We understand that pressure bothers them, so we have to make a choice to get up and deny the wings, get up and deny the elbow catches. That would be one of the deciding factors – not the only deciding factor. But ultimately, it’s going to come down to the intangibles.”
The 2016 league MVP said Los Angeles has peaked at the right time.
“That’s not something you can measure, but intangibly you just feel, and I’ve felt it,” she said. “I’ve felt it the bulk of it coming out of the All-Star break, and then it was really developing, and now we’ve hit our mark.”
In a way, Game 4 of the series will be just another matchup for Ogwumike.
“We’re going to do what we do any other day,” she said. “A lot of times people think you perform because of high stakes, but if you’ve been doing what you’ve been doing from the beginning, nothing really changes.”
But that’s not to say Ogwumike isn’t girding for a battle.
“There is talent both ways,” she said. “I think it’s going to be more of a circumstantial advantage. For them, this is it, so they’re going to leave everything on the floor. For us this is it in another way. It’s going to be pretty intense (Sunday).”
Lavender echoed the two-year-old Los Angeles philosophy of taking one game at a time, and admitted that not taking that approach cost them Game 4 in last year’s Finals.
“We have to stay focused on each individual moment,” she said. “If we start looking too far ahead and start worrying about celebrations, that’s when you lose sight of what’s actually important in that given moment. We have to go in between those lines for 40 minutes and do what it takes to beat Minnesota in this moment. Not to worry about what we’re going to do afterward or what we’re going to do on break.”
“That’s what we got caught in last year, and that was a lesson we learned, thinking we had already won the series instead of focusing for every single minute of that game. Just getting it done and not worrying about the outcome.”
Lavender said the Sparks are prepared to fight in Game 4.
“This is a great team and they were number one in the league, and we have to do everything necessary to beat them,” she said. “That means pressure and making any shot difficult for them throughout the entire game. We talk about that constantly, giving everything we have left.”
“You have to have a strong body and a strong mind to withstand a match up like this. Both teams are so good that any given night someone can do something so fantastic and spectacular that you have to withstand that. Physically, it’s grueling.”
The uniqueness of the Sparks, according to Lavender, is in the bonds they have formed off the court.
“The strength of our team is our core – the people who have been here,” she said. “The aura and environment we want to have is competitive, but off the court we want to be like sisters. When people come into this they might not be used to that, and then they fall into line with it. Odyssey (Sims) is a perfect example of that, and Riquna (Williams) is also buying into the fact that we have care and compassion for each other. It’s cool – I’ve never seen anything like it. We have an enjoyable team – we joke, we have a common purpose. When you like the people you compete with, you compete for them.”
The fourth-year guard is in her first season with Los Angeles after being acquired in the offseason, and she has moved into a starting role with her fearless, electric play. She said the year has been tremendous for her, both professionally and personally.
“I’ve learned a little bit of everything, literally, both on the court and off the court,” Sims said. “I’ve learned about basketball, about myself as a person, about my character, all of that. Sportsmanship too. All of it’s been tested, but I’ve learned more about myself this year than any other year that I’ve been in the WNBA.”
“I’m able to listen and respond to my teammates. I’ve done a better job of responding on the court and off the court and just really listening, because they’ve been here before.”
Sims said the Sparks have become like an extended family to her.
“I just love this team in general. Everyone is great,” Sims said. “What I about this team is they genuinely care, they genuinely bring out the best in you. Whether you don’t want to hear it, whether you do, no matter where you’re playing or what time, you’re going to hear something. But it’s positive feedback. You can tell them ‘leave me alone’ and they’ll say ‘hey, let’s pick it up.’”
Augustus said the Lynx are not affected by expectations that they avenge last year’s Finals loss.
“What pressure haven’t we faced before?” she said. “The last seven Finals, we’ve been a part of, and we’ve won three championships. There’s not a pressure we haven’t seen or faced before, so why would there be some pressure now?”
“We’re all we’ve got, and this is it: our season either goes one game further, or it ends tomorrow. There’s no looking back. You have to leave everything on the table. In hockey they’re not out there on the ice for long stretches of time, but they give it all they’ve got when they’re out there. We’ve got to have the same mentality. If I’m giving it everything I’ve got every minute, that’s how we all have to play: locked in.”
Augustus said she her teammates don’t worry about the fretting of their fans when they don’t play well.
“Every time we lose a game, it’s the end of the world,” Augustus said. “We lost a regular-season game to Connecticut when we were on a 10-game winning streak and it was like, ‘My God, what’s going with the Lynx? We need new coaches, new players, let’s just start this thing from scratch and get it going again.’ But if we win tomorrow, then everybody’s all about the Lynx: ‘we knew it!’ But that’s sports fans – women’s basketball, men’s basketball, baseball. They’re going to ride with you when things are good.”
This year’s regular-season most valuable player said the rest of the Finals series will be a battle of the minds.
“At this point I think it’s more mental than anything,” Fowles said. “Both teams are very capable physically, but mentally it’s a matter of who’s willing to make the extra pass, who’s willing to make the extra tip out of the rebound, who’s willing to crash the boards when they’re tired.”
Fowles said setting the tone in Game 4 is key.
“It’s all about the way we start out, and both teams can appreciate that,” she said. “Both teams have experienced what it’s like to get off to a good start, and those that have got off to that start have been successful in the series. We just can’t have those lapses where we’re not getting stops and not scoring. That’s the difference-maker – making sure we got off to a great start and paying attention to details.”
Minnesota’s beloved point guard said the outcome of Sunday’s game will depend upon who wants the win more.
“It’s a test of wills at this point,” she said. “Our backs are against the wall. We were in this situation last year, and we won Game 4. We’re going to go in with a fresh mindset tomorrow and focus on what we can do better; what we learned from video.”
Whether it is a physical or mental game at this point is a tough call for Whalen.
“It’s hard to say, because both play a factor,” she said. “You have to make the right calls as a point guard when you’re tired, and still get the team to know what we need to do. Obviously every player has weaknesses and what not, but they both go hand in hand: when you’re tired physically you have to overcome it mentally, and maybe if you mentally make a mistake try to physically make up for it. Everybody’s trying to do what they can to help the team.”
When asked if she’d seen two teams match up as well as the Spark and Lynx before, Whalen was, as she is usually, a woman of few words.
“No,” she said.
The former MVP has struggled at times in this series, but has battled back each time. She said the key to a Minnesota Game 4 win is concentration.
“It’s about staying focused for 40 minutes and maintaining that energy for 40 minutes,” Moore said. “It’s not a secret that whichever team has more focus and energy, that’s what makes the difference. There will be runs, highs and lows, and we know we still have more to do. We’re still not at that level we want to get to at this point in the series. We want to continue to get to that 40 minutes. It’s really really hard, but we can get there.”
Moore said external pressures to achieve are largely insignificant to her.
“For the most part I don’t listen to a lot of things in general,” she said. “I hear things, of course, but I try to really focus on the things that are most important to me. More pressure than from anybody else is the pressure I put on myself. I try to make sure I used all that to go into my craft.”
Seven years as a professional athlete has taught Moore to be especially tough, she said.
“(It’s taught me) how hard it is to do this year after year,” Moore said. “It’s just extremely hard: you have to develop that toughness for day after day after day, the grind. Being able to overcome anything that comes my way or in the way of our team, to be able to overcome enough and to keep overcoming and finding ways to problem-solve together, and to enjoy that process.”
Montgomery came up big for the Lynx in Game 3, scoring 12 points off the bench when starters weren’t able to produce. She is ready to produce again in Sunday’s game.
“You know in your preparation that it’s not about the X’s and O’s – it’s about players making plays,” Montgomery said. “The team who makes the most plays wins the game.”
The Lynx will be ready, according to Montgomery.
“There’s nothing we haven’t been prepared for in practice. It’s everything we thought it would be: it’s a knockdown, drag out, each possession is the biggest possession,” she said.