WNBA Finals recap: Sylvia Fowles, Rebekkah Brunson help Minnesota Lynx force Game 5

Calling an elimination game a “must-win” is a funny thing that happens a surprising amount. There’s really no need to say that a team down 2-1 in a five-game series needs to win the next or their season wins. We all know. The Minnesota Lynx found themselves in one of those obvious must-win situations on Sunday for Game 4. Their 80-69 victory over the Los Angeles Sparks was not only necessary but assertive. It was the performance they needed after uneven efforts through the first three games of the series.

Sunday’s contest was once again an exhibition of defense. The Sparks forced the Lynx to settle for midrange jumpers early on. When Lindsay Whalen would feed the ball into the post, the Sparks would immediately double the pass catcher. That was until the Lynx used their own defense to assert their own will.

That was until the Lynx used their own defense to assert their own will.

Trailing 10-8 in the first quarter, the Lynx ripped off an 11-0 run behind, primarily, the ancillary players like Jia Perkins and Renee Montgomery. Seimone Augustus also contributed after being held scoreless in the previous game. The run was highlighted by forcing turnovers, getting defensive rebounds, and getting quick buckets before the defense could get set. Despite a 6-2 Sparks run to finish the quarter, the Lynx would never again trail in this game.

The biggest difference was Rebbekah Brunson. It’s easy to overlook Brunson sometimes with all the talent around her but the 14-year veteran still knows how to make an impact. Brunson was everywhere, picking off passes, dishing out assists, and drawing fouls. With L.A.’s aggressive interior defense, her proficiency took pressure off of Sylvia Fowles as the Lynx outrebounded their opponent by 20.

Brunson and Fowles combined for 10 offensive rebounds and 27 total rebounds. For reference, the Sparks had 28 as a team. For Brunson, this helped her draw many fouls on a night when her shots were difficult. She had 18 points on 4-for-12 shooting but went 10-for-13 from the line. Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker had five and four fouls, respectively.

What makes the Sparks so difficult to defend is that they can beat you in a number of ways. They can beat you up with Parker and Ogwumike inside. They can also stretch you out with Chelsea Gray and Oddysey Sims. Then there’s Alana Beard to lock down the opposing team’s best player and hit shots as necessary. Brunson playing aggressively gives the Lynx the same dynamic. With Fowles, they also have a Twin Towers. With Maya Moore and Augustus, the Lynx can do anything with the ball. And Lindsay Whalen is the conductor.

In Game 3, Whalen, Brunson, and Augustus were held to a combined six points. Coming back against the Sparks with none of these players playing well was impossible. In Game 4, they made the difference. Of course, Moore also did with her efficient 15 points. Fowles’ 22-point, 14-rebound performance did, too. But the Sparks were ready for that with double teams down low and denying dribble penetration. Brunson made it too difficult to double in the post because there were too many threats.

The Lynx head home having played their best game of the Finals in a hostile environment. Just like it was unlikely the Lynx were going to be as bad as they were in Game 3, the Sparks figure to be better as well. They may not outrebound L.A. by 20 again but they need to control the game. They need to dial up the defensive intensity once again. The challenge is that these teams have a combined 908-908 score in their last 12 meetings. Only one of these teams can have the edge after Wednesday night.