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Sparks will play for WNBA title on Minnesota's court — but may have an edge of their own

Sparks will play for WNBA title on Minnesota's court — but may have an edge of their own
The Sparks' Nneka Ogwumike, left, Candace Parker and Kristi Toliver surround Minnesota's Sylvia Fowles on Sunday. (Harry How / Getty Images)

On Sunday night, a few hours after a WNBA championship slipped through the Sparks’ fingers, Nneka Ogwumike lay in bed and did what she usually avoids doing.  

Ogwumike, the heartbeat of the Sparks and the league's most valuable player, has a gift for turning the page. She can forget missed shots, a hollow stat line, a loss, immediately after a game. She can laugh about any of it too.

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But here she was, wide awake, jogging her brain to answer a question that would not go away: What kept the Sparks from clinching the title on their home floor?

"I think that everyone out there was playing to win a championship," Ogwumike said of the Sparks' six-point loss in Game 4. "And not to beat the team that we were playing."

That team is the Minnesota Lynx, the defending champions, who have won the title in every odd year since 2011. The Sparks, on the other hand, head into Thursday’s decisive Game 5 (5 p.m. PT on ESPN2) in Minneapolis without a championship since 2002. 

The Sparks' unfamiliarity with the moment, in Coach Brian Agler's estimation, could give the Lynx an edge. But it also could be the Sparks' season-defining strength.

"I think they have the advantage, obviously they're playing at home and they've been here, those are two huge advantages," Agler said before the Sparks practiced Wednesday. "Our advantage might be that we haven't been here, you know?"

The Sparks' run to the WNBA Finals has carried a frustrating theme: Whatever they have done, the Lynx have done one better.

They started 11-0, and the Lynx set a WNBA record by starting 13-0. The Sparks won 26 regular-season games, the second-most in franchise history, and the Lynx won 28 to earn the No. 1 seed for the playoffs. The Sparks beat the Chicago Sky in four games to advance to the Finals, and the Lynx swept the Phoenix Mercury with three double-digit wins to get there first. 

"It's not just this year, I feel like it's every year recently with them," Sparks center Jantel Lavender said Wednesday. "It's one possession here, one possession there and we could be that team that has won all these things. We don't feel like they're better than us, but we do need to show that."

Now the Sparks have one final shot.

History, and logic, are on the Lynx's side. Four of their five starters played on the U.S. Olympic gold-medal team in Rio. The Lynx are playing at home. They have played in plenty of critical games, far more than the Sparks have.

But in a quiet moment after Game 3, when the Sparks were also one win away from the elusive championship, Ogwumike offered some logic of her own.

"They want four [titles], and yeah, there is obviously a lot of experience in getting those first three," Ogwumike said. "But we want one...."

She looked around the locker room as if she was about to share a secret. Ogwumike leaned in, her eyes widening, before whispering the end of her thought.

"And let me tell you something. There is nothing more dangerous than a team that wants one."

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jesse.dougherty@latimes.com

Twitter: @dougherty_jesse

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