Every possession matters between these two teams. Who will come out on top Wednesday night? Your guess is as good as mine. The 2017 WNBA Finals have come to a Game 5 at Williams Arena between the top-seeded Minnesota Lynx and the defending champions, the Los Angeles Sparks.
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The first two games will be remembered for the slow starts last-second heroics. The Sparks won Game 3 with defense down the stretch and a balanced scoring attack; the Lynx punched back in Game 4 with a combined 40 points and 27 rebounds from Rebekkah Brunson and Sylvia Fowles.
How can Minnesota finish the deal to win its fourth title in seven years?
Start more conversations with the MVP of the league. It sounds so simple. Much of the success she’s found on the floor in 2017 appears to come easily because Fowles has been so efficient.
Her duck-ins, post-ups or rim runs don’t look quite so easy against the best competition in a five-game series. Fowles’ accomplishments shouldn’t be cheapened in the first place, but the quality of her Finals opponent has reminded us that nothing comes easy. The Sparks challenge her with quality defenders and usually send a second body her way. Fowles ran right through everybody on Sunday for 22 points and 14 rebounds.
The Sparks will probably be in trouble if Fowles shoots 19 times again, considering how much of her work is done around the basket. Fowles has also been more of a force in defending the paint as the series has worn on.
Turn next to the play of Brunson. She poked the ball away from Chelsea Gray on the final possession of Game 2. Brunson also bounced back from a rough performance in Game 1, in which she logged just 16 minutes.
Brunson’s performances in Game 2 (12 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks) and Game 4 (18 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals) have been paramount to the success of the Lynx in this series. She’s tasked with guarding 2016 Finals MVP Candace Parker, too.
Much was made of her missed jumpers in Game 1 or her hesitance to shoot more, but her abilities to contribute everywhere else offensively were undersold. If the Sparks leave Brunson open, Minnesota needs her to knock down shots. Just don’t discount the occasional dribble drives, the slipped screens, the extra pass, the fight on the offensive glass, the cuts, or the spaces on the floor she moves toward to open up the paint for MVP Sylvia Fowles.
Brunson changed this series in Game 2 by not balking at the idea that Los Angeles might be willing to leave her open to fire away. Minnesota avoided an 0-2 hole. Lindsay Whalen, too, was key at the point of attack in picking her spots to pull up for an elbow jumper or get to the rim.
The Lynx point guard didn’t match her Game 2 total of 12 points in the ensuing two games, but she dished 8 assists in Game 4 and a first half three-pointer hushed a Sparks run. The Lynx will need similar levels of assertiveness and confidence from both players in Game 5.
Maya Moore’s opportunities to score have been limited by Alana Beard. Moore’s effectiveness hasn’t gone anywhere. She’s scoring 17 points per game in these Finals on 56% shooting. The Lynx run great actions to give her a head start on Beard. Continued execution with those types of sets could lead to a big game from Moore or even possibly some foul trouble for Beard/her teammates.
No player can sustain quite the level of shot making seen from Seimone Augustus in the semifinals. She and Whalen failed to score at all in Game 3. Beard has spent some time guarding Augustus in this series. Let these Finals, though, also serve as a testament to the quality of team and individual defense in this series beyond Beard or Fowles. Odyssey Sims, Essence Carson and Chelsea Gray have been quality defenders in prominent roles all season long.
Augustus didn’t turn in her best shooting performance in Game 4, but her contributions were impactful. She found some early offense with the help of ball screens in transition. She read the defense to also make two big plays late. Augustus flipped in a tough floater from the baseline and hit Fowles with an absolute dime of a lob pass.
Minnesota looked balanced on offense on Sunday to emphasize Fowles while still running some of their favorite screening actions to free up Moore and Augustus. Those two objectives often present paths for both to happen depending on how the defense reacts.
Truth be told, we don’t know how the Sparks will react. That will be seen on Wednesday. Much is made of the idea of a rematch and yet another Game 5 in Minnesota. These teams are still capable of surprising the viewing audience. Rookie Alexis Jones breathed some new life into this series by coming in off the bench to knock down shots after not playing a lick in either of the first two games.
Rookie guard Alexis Jones breathed some new life into this series by coming in off the bench to knock down shots after not playing a lick in either of the first two games.
Renee Montgomery is instant offense off the bench for Cheryl Reeve. Jia Perkins was hitting her midrange jumpers at home in the first two games of the series and is a strong defender on the perimeter. Minutes have been limited for Natasha Howard and Plenette Pierson, but both players are experienced and have multiple strengths.
The Lynx have looked discombobulated offensively at times and face their own unique challenges in guarding a team as good as the Sparks. The back-and-forth struggle we’ve seen is bound to happen between two great teams. This year’s title perhaps is most likely to come down to more of the same — the effort plays.
Two teams, familiar with one another and hungry for a championship. It will all be decided Wednesday night on ESPN. Enjoy it. This is what basketball fans live for.