The contrast in the locker rooms was as striking as it was anticipated.
The few Sparks not getting medical treatment or headed to the court to warm up on Saturday sat stone-faced in front of a television monitor watching film of a recent game against Minnesota. On a message board were several keys to the game, and one was written in all caps: “WIN TO PLAY.”
In the Minnesota locker room most of the team was watching the Washington-Ohio State football game. Assistant coach Nancy Darsh kidded Tamika Williams about Williams’ alma mater, Connecticut, having won its football opener “against a team we’ve actually heard of [Indiana].”
All the pressure to extend this WNBA Western Conference first-round series was squarely on the Sparks. And this time they did not lose a big lead or their composure, coming away with an 80-69 victory before 8,128 at Staples Center.
That doesn’t mean they didn’t struggle at times against the upstart Lynx, who led only once, at 5-3. Minnesota never stopped chasing the Sparks even when Los Angeles -- which shot 42.9%, forced 24 Lynx turnovers and had all five starters in double figures, led by Lisa Leslie with 20 -- had a 54-32 lead midway through the second half.
“It wasn’t a pretty game but it was a game we had to win,” Spark Coach Michael Cooper said. “Still, you’ve got to credit this Minnesota Lynx team that many people thought would just be happy to be here. They’re a team that thinks it can win. That’s why you work so hard for home-court advantage. They got a game [in Minnesota], we got one here. And we’ve got one more game here.”
Game 3 on Monday at 7 p.m. will bring the series to a conclusion. The Lynx might not have been considered a legitimate opponent before the series started. But they are now.
“This was a must-win situation for us tonight and I thought we played hungry,” Leslie said. “We jumped on them, but it’s hard to maintain a lead on a team that can shoot the ball as well as they can.”
The Sparks heaved a collective sigh of relief when Nikki Teasley, who suffered a bone bruise on her left knee on Thursday, was able to start.
And Teasley, who played all 40 minutes on Saturday and scored 12 points (although she missed all nine three-point attempts) said she was confident she could play after the results of the MRI exam she took on Friday showed no other damage to the knee.
“It’s not something that was career threatening,” Teasley said.
“I felt my team needed me out there to be a floor leader and set up the offense. I had a long talk with myself, and just prayed I would be healthy enough to play.”
Minnesota Coach Suzie McConnell Serio did have some pre-game messages for the Lynx. The main one was to survive the first five minutes of each half.
“We expect them to try and send a message each time,” McConnell Serio said.
The Lynx trailed only 13-10 after five minutes. But then Los Angeles moved to a 30-15 lead, a lead built primarily on an active defense that was sealing off Lynx interior passes, holding Minnesota to one shot (the Lynx had one offensive rebound in the half) and controlling the tempo.
Los Angeles, however, went into a lull, making only one more basket and scoring just six points in the final 7:41. Despite nine turnovers, Minnesota managed to narrow the gap to 36-26 at halftime.
In the second half Minnesota trailed by as many as 22 points and got as close as eight points.
The Lynx, which got 18 points from Katie Smith and 17 from Tamika Williams, tried most of the same defensive schemes that worked last Thursday, particularly the full court pressure.
The Sparks did have 15 turnovers, but were able to respond better to the Lynx defense with Teasley running the show.