“You know, I just watched Game 5 from last year before this game,” Lynx Head Coach Cheryl Reeve said following Wednesday’s decisive Game 5, “and I thought, ‘Sylvia Fowles was awful.'”
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Those words in isolation come as a shock to those who followed the WNBA regular season and playoffs.
Awful is not a word that was ascribed to anything Fowles did for any part of the season. Sweet Syl, as she prefers to be called (rather than ‘Big Syl’), dominated the 2017 WNBA season from start to finish.
Reeve admitted and stated over and over again that the Lynx needed to get Fowles more involved coming away from the 2016 WNBA Finals, in which Minnesota fell just short against the Los Angeles Sparks in five games.
In 2017’s Game 5, however, Fowles left little doubt as to who was the best player on the floor — 37 minutes, 17 points, 20 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, 3 blocks.
“If I didn’t do anything else, I just wanted to make it my business to make sure I just go out there and rebound, and that was my downfall last year.” Fowles said. “Like I said, I fell on the court, that haunted me for a long time after Game 5 last year. I just wanted to come in and I wanted to show my presence, and if that was rebounding, then rebounding it was.”
Fowles sure did rebound. She topped her own Finals record of 17 rebounds for a single game. Seven of her rebounds were offensive, equaling the Sparks total as a team and accounting for half of the Lynx total for the game.
Reeve’s comments, of course, had additional context. “She was awful in Game 5, and all I thought was, my goodness gracious did we have some success in transforming her into such a dominant presence that put a pressure on their defense like nobody else could. We were relentless.”
Relentless is a fitting word to describe Fowles’ season as a whole (appeared in all 34 games, averaging 19 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks), but also her efforts in concert with Rebekkah Brunson on the boards (in the last two Finals games in particular). Those two collected 55 rebounds in Game 4 and Game 5 combined. The Sparks, as a team, had 57.
Fowles and Brunson were relentless. They kept crashing. Fowles and Brunson grabbed 22 offensive rebounds in the final two games of this series. The Sparks managed just 14.
Go back and comb the box scores. The Sparks and Lynx shot the ball about the same from the field (MIN: 43.7%, LA: 43.0%) and made seven three-pointers apiece. Los Angeles even won the turnover battle by five. Minnesota did make 14 additional trips to the free throw line in Game 4; many of those resulted directly from offensive boards.
Fowles and the Lynx won with defense, rebounding and effort plays. Not seen immediately in a box score are the rebounds that create extra shots like this one:
This championship, though, did not come easy to Fowles or the Lynx. Los Angeles blew the doors off Minnesota at ‘The Barn’ at the start of Game 1. The Lynx came all the way back to take a lead after falling in a 28-2 hole.
Part of Minnesota’s success early in the series came by turning to smaller lineups. Most often it was Jia Perkins with Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen around Fowles or Brunson. Alexis Jones also received some extra minutes.
That lineup shift at first may have been about Brunson, who clunked a few jumpers early in Game 1 and never appeared herself in that game.
But this team was centered around its center all season long. Something else seemed off. Reeve didn’t beat around the bush. “We had some bad play calling early in the series where we would go through stretches with Syl not getting touches. Just ridiculous,” she said.
The Sparks are capable of doubling the post extremely well. Nneka Ogwumike has a strong base and great hands as a post defender. Candace Parker is a swarming help defender with great instincts, also capable of being the initial defender on Fowles.
Minnesota got back to running its best actions. Fowles is the MVP after all, and had no need to fear her frontcourt adversaries, formidable a duo as they may be.
Minnesota’s best actions are so effective because they allow them to look off one option and transition seamlessly into feeding the next. Take away a cross screen for Fowles? Fine. Moore is already flying to the top of the key. Stick to Fowles as she and Brunson set a pair of screens off the ball? Augustus already canned an 18-footer.
Minnesota found some success with a small lineup, but was that sustainable? Would the number one seed really shift its identity mid-Finals?
Adjustments that drastic feel simpler from the outside. But who soaks up all those minutes if they do that and how do the Lynx run their same stuff with different combination of people on the floor?
They didn’t. Reeve took a hard look at her team and stayed true to what they had been — and who they geared themselves around.
“And we vowed in Game 4, we said all you guys talked about was a small lineup. Game 3, I’d go with the small lineup. At the end of the day, we lose the game, and we say, you know what, we’ve got to be ourselves because ourselves was good enough to get us here.” Reeve said.
“And if we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down being ourselves, and that was — we were going to center this thing around Sylvia Fowles.” Reeve continued, “And we just made a concerted effort that we were not going to spend another three, four minutes, a quarter, a half, whatever it was, without featuring our MVP.”
Sylvia Fowles was acquired by the Lynx via trade in 2015. She was named the Finals MVP in that same year. Despite the 2016 Finals loss and Fowles and Reeve’s openness in talking about disappointment stemming from it, that initial success wasn’t exactly ancient history.
Reeve expressed an immediate sense of urgency to prioritize Fowles, and Sweet Syl responded with her best season to date. A clean sweep — regular season and WNBA Finals Most Valuable Player.
The Sparks and Lynx traded wins and loses in their nine WNBA Finals games prior to Wednesday. There was an eerie feel to how both series played out so similarly. LA took Game 1 both years with game-winning jumpers. Minnesota won the Game 2s. LA went up 2-1 both years as the series shifted to Los Angeles. Minnesota staved off elimination to force Game 5s.
Fowles made sure that she and her teammates would be the ones to win two straight in a Finals matchup with the Sparks.
Fowles left her imprint on Game 5 with her rebounding. Her passing as the game wore on is also worth highlighting. Reeve, too, expressed her approval. “I thought she passed out of double-teams just unbelievably in this series. She knew it was coming.”
Fowles found herself at the center of Wednesday’s action with the ball in her hands, just as Reeve may have imagined heading into the season.
“You know, we went from being centered around Lindsay, Seimone and Maya,” Reeve said, “So now it was Syl every single night, and we had to have people that were willing to take less of a role, and they were happy to do it.”
After Wednesday’s performance, Fowles is now a two-time Finals MVP and champion. Reeve, Moore, Augustus and Whalen have four rings. This one is Brunson’s fifth.
The idea of a rematch may not excite every basketball fan. This Lynx-Sparks rivalry is one the game of basketball and the WNBA can fully get behind. Maya Moore has four rings in seven years and is just 28 years old. Chelsea Gray, a first-time All-Star and starter in 2017, is likely just getting started. Parker and Ogwumike are at the peak of their powers. Brian Agler, like Reeve, is a legend in coaching already.
But it was Fowles who dominated, who surprised some, who played better than ever at the age of 31.
“At the end of the day,” Reeve said, “There’s nothing like seeing the transformation of a player like Sylvia Fowles, and she’s the reason why we won a championship.”