Sparks come up short in Game 2 as Lynx set tone, tie series

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Lynx held on at home in Game 2 of the 2017 WNBA Finals to tie the series up in front of a raucous crowd at Williams Arena. The Los Angeles Sparks had chances to tie it or take a lead late but were unable to capitalize.

Each game is different, seen in plain color Tuesday night after Chelsea Gray won Game 1 with a left elbow jumper.  The game ended on three straight turnovers — the Sparks were called for a five second violation; Seimone Augustus tripped and saw an inbounds pass slip away; Rebekkah Brunson poked the ball away from Chelsea Gray and Lindsay Whalen was able to dribble out the clock.

The Sparks trailed by as many as 20 in Game 2 after exploding out of the gates with a 28-2 start to Game 1.  Minnesota tightened up defensively and all five starters were knocking down shots from the opening moments.

Sparks fans may see Game 2 as a missed opportunity, especially when zooming in on the final few possessions.  As we look ahead to Games 3 and 4 in Los Angeles, here are some takeaways from Tuesday evening:

Five points and then some

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – SEPTEMBER 26: Lindsay Whalen

Lindsay Whalen knifed through the lane in her team’s first possession and tossed in a reverse with her right hand.  Whalen got off to a hot start, matching her Game 1 point total in the first two minutes of Game 2 with that layup, a jumper and a free throw.  Six Lynx players scored five or more in the first half.

Whalen and Renee Montgomery off the bench were able to get all the way into the lane to score early in Game 2.  That seemed to loosen everything up ever so slightly for Minnesota’s offense.  “Whalen took a lot personally from Game 1 and she realized she wasn’t aggressive enough.” Cheryl Reeve said afterward. “So she came out and really established herself.

“I thought it created openings for us, and now you gotta step up a little bit so the bigs were running free a little bit.” Reeve said. Once Whalen is hitting shots, too, she’s able to capitalize on her ability to change speeds or keep a defender off balance with a fake to open things up even more.

Rebekkah Brunson, too, came out of the gate and made shots.  She was aggressive in driving all the way to the rim to score and knocked down a few midrange jumpers.  All five Lynx starters scored 10 or more points.  Brunson added three assists and three blocks in a game-high 37 minutes.

Lynx clamp down on D

The Sparks shot just 9-for-32 (28%) in the first half.  These two teams are never all that likely to give anything easy up at the rim or from three.  Without massive runs like we saw in Game 1, every basket felt even more like it really had to be earned.

“The outcome of the game had a lot to do with how Minnesota played.” Brian Agler said postgame. “And not so much about what we didn’t do. They set the tone early in the game.”

Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike combined to miss their first 11 shots. No need to make it overcomplicated in regard to the first half — LA’s two stars struggled to get it going early and Minnesota was locked in to take away open jumpers and contest just about everything at the rim.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – SEPTEMBER 26: Maya Moore

Ogwumike reflected her same sense of calm, strength and poise in traffic in the second half.  The 2016 MVP pulled down 13 rebounds and was able to find a few buckets in the paint.  You may remember her hook shot late in Game 1 with the shot clock winding down.  That shot came over the top of Sylvia Fowles.  She caught, looked, pivoted, then swung back around to toss one in calmly over the MVP in the 4th as the Sparks tried to close within two possessions.

The Sparks have been getting 30+ points per game from Parker and Ogwumike. Their late second half surge was needed to get them to 28 combined Tuesday night.  Sylvia Fowles and Brunson made their presence known in the paint, blocking five shots.  Fowles pulled down a game-high 17 rebounds to anchor the Lynx.

Missed opportunity?

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – SEPTEMBER 26: Lindsay Whalen

As this series transitions to Los Angeles, the Sparks return home knowing they split in Williams Arena.  Home court now rests with the Sparks, and they’ll have a chance to take care of business at Staples Center.  Both these teams won on the road in the 2016 WNBA Finals — a similar result would be no big surprise.  “At this point in the series, it doesn’t matter where we play.” Candace Parker said.

The Sparks are 18-1 at home this season, including their semifinal victories over the Mercury.  Two more at home would clinch the repeat.  Minnesota, of course, has other plans.  Both teams have battled back from double-digit deficits, and both games have come down to the final possession.

“We know how special this series is.” Maya Moore said when asked if she thought about the quality of basketball being played between these two teams. “It’s just all the more motivation to continue to compete and just treasure every moment that we have together.”

Again, could this be viewed as a missed opportunity for Los Angeles? Sure. Minnesota fans can see Game 1 in the same light. “Once you get in the series, now you just think about the moment,” Agler said in response to a question in that vein. “And the moment just happened. So we’ve got to take this and evaluate and make some adjustment. We’ve got to get better. We have to improve.”

We know there will be a Game 3 and a Game 4. Another split brings us back to Minnesota for another Game 5.

What could be better than that?

Game 1 WNBA Finals coverage: