Column

Plaschke | Sparks’ loss is hoop fans’ gain

Sylvia Fowles was whacked in the right eye, stopped cold under her basket, stood there frozen while trying to shake away the blurriness.

She couldn’t. For five minutes, she couldn’t see out of the eye. It didn’t matter. The Minnesota Lynx center stayed in the game, because that is what you do when you’re in the middle of a fight.

“Don’t tell anybody,” she said of playing blind. “But I wasn’t coming out.”

Odyssey Sims was whacked on the shoulder and the head and, oh, just about everywhere. She lay crumpled in a heap under her own basket. Her teammates surrounded her. The crowd roared for revenge against the fouling Lindsay Whalen, screaming, “Throw her out!”

Sims ignored it all. The Sparks guard calmly stood up, bit her lip and made two free throws, because that is what you’re in the middle of the WNBA Finals.

“I don’t want to talk about that,” Sims said later. “I’m fine.”

On a Sunday night in front of a raucous Staples Center crowd that filled the lower bowl with a Lakers-like roar, the Sparks lost, but the WNBA won.

With a golden chance to clinch their second consecutive championship, and this time in front of their home crowd unlike last year, the Sparks were nonetheless outfought and fell to the Lynx, 80-69, to even their best-of-five Finals at two games apiece.

But the game was wild, the noise was huge, and the league shined. And wait, there’s more, a winner-take-all Game 5 in Minnesota on Wednesday, a rematch of last year’s Game 5 Finals won by the defending champion Sparks, and it should be a doozy.

Twenty years after the first WNBA game was played in this town, the former novelty league has become a showcase of skilled and physical hoops, the best women’s basketball in the world, and an absolutely blast to watch.

“The competition has been amazing and people want to come out and see it,” the Lynx’s Rebekkah Brunson said. “We’re playing on the edge, we’re going after everything.”

I covered the first WNBA game 20 years ago in the Forum between the Sparks and New York Liberty, and I wrote about “countless mistakes and poor shooting” and a failed dunk attempt by the Sparks’ Lisa Leslie.

There were mistakes and missed shots on Sunday, but far more moments of brilliant intensity, spectacular Lynx layups that gave them a 19-point lead, a couple of soaring Sparks three-pointers that pulled them within eight down the stretch. And nobody tried to dunk anything but each other, the Lynx winning because they elbowed their way to an amazing 20 more rebounds than the Sparks, including grabbing 16 offensive rebounds.

The Lynx were desperate, and played like it.

“You have to fight, because either they drop the confetti, or we take it back home,” Fowles said.

The Sparks would have another chance in Minnesota, just like last year, and sadly, played like it.

“It came down to the intangibles and they beat us in that area,” the Sparks’ Alana Beard said. “It’s disappointing we didn’t do what we needed to do.”

Lots of folks were there to watch them do it. Magic Johnson, one of the co-owners, was sitting under one basket. Actress Vivica A. Fox was in the stands with her hair colored purple.

Lots of folks were ready to celebrate. Unlike at that first WNBA game, this group of about 13,000 was equal parts men and women. And like a perfect Los Angeles crowd, they not only cheered the Sparks, but they also tried to party them to victory, lip-synching to Katy Perry and Chaka Kahn songs during timeouts and dancing until the final two minutes, when the Lynx showed their best moves in the paint to finish it.

Leading by eight, Brunson fought for an offensive rebound and flipped it to Maya Moore for a layup that represented the dagger, not to mention another missed Sparks opportunity.

“We can do all the fighting we want but if we don’t rebound, it’s pointless,” the Sparks’ Candace Parker said. “Sixteen times they got the ball, again, off of a missed shot. You’re not going to win like that.”

In the final 30 seconds, the video board showed a fan in a Sparks jersey while the disc jockey urged him to dance. The fan glared upward and pointed to the court, wanting to concentrate on the task at hand, and the Sparks would do well to follow him.

They have a chance to win consecutive titles for the second time in franchise history Wednesday night. With two former MVPs on the floor, they can cement their status as one of the best teams in WNBA history.

But facing an aging Lynx team that clearly doesn’t want to go down without a punch, they also could lose it all without knowing what hit them.

Said Fowles: “We have our back up against the ropes, we come out swinging and give it everything we got, all we have to give.”

Countered Parker: “We should be desperate, too. We’re fighting for a championship.”

Because of the WNBA’s modest budget, both teams will quite unbelievably be flying to Minneapolis today on the same commercial flight.

Seat belts most assuredly fastened.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Get more of Bill Plaschke's work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke

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