Another ample lead had all but vanished, continuing the theme of the yo-yoing WNBA Finals.
It was not the magnitude of the 26-point edge enjoyed by the Sparks early in the series opener, or the 20-point advantage amassed by the Lynx in Game 2. Still, the Sparks cringed as a 13-point cushion they relished midway through the third quarter of Friday night’s Game 3 dissipated.
But the Sparks, who scored the initial basket and never trailed, gathered themselves in time to take charge with a 75-64 win at Staples Center, which gave them a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series. One more victory Sunday would grace the Sparks with back-to-back titles, the first for the WNBA since L.A. did it in 2001-02.
Despite the Sparks’ struggles to hang on, Friday night’s victory was a veritable romp compared to the previous two games, neither of which was determined until the last possession. But Minnesota missed several opportunities to tie Game 3 or move in front.
“By no means at this point, as well as we know each other, are the games going to be pretty,” said the Sparks’ Candace Parker, who was held scoreless in the first quarter for the second straight game but finished with 13 points, seven assists, five rebounds, five steals and three blocks.
The Sparks seemed in the clear after a Parker flurry — five consecutive points, then an exquisite assist to the back-cutting Odyssey Sims that resulted in one of numerous layups on which Minnesota defenders were beaten from the backside. That made it 47-34 with 16 minutes remaining, and the Lynx appeared unable to overcome a sluggish start in which they trailed 17-8 after one quarter.
“An anemic offense that was not prepared,” is how Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve bitterly labeled her starting lineup. “Our starters didn’t compete in a way we hoped that would start the game. It’s hard to win a WNBA Finals game without your star players.”
Aside from WNBA most valuable player Sylvia Fowles, the starters accounted for all of two points prior to halftime. One had a partial excuse. Maya Moore committed three fouls barely 11 minutes in and became stuck on the bench for the remainder of the half.
Even as Sparks coach Brian Agler lauded league defensive MVP Alana Beard for her work on Moore, he acknowledged, “The foul trouble helped.”
The Lynx subsequently leaned on a smaller unit that juiced up the offense but at the expense of rebounding. One game after Fowles corralled 17 rebounds alone, Minnesota did not hit that figure until the fourth quarter and finished with a 34-27 deficit.
The bulk of the crowd, announced liberally at 13,500, was seated by the dinner-hour tip-off, some 90 minutes before the usual weekday start of 7:30 p.m. The Sparks, as they’ve done all series, stayed in their locker room during the national anthem while the Lynx stood near half-court.
Blinding defense vaulted the Sparks to the lead and if not for 5-foot-7 backup guard Renee Montgomery’s 10-point outburst — which exceeded her season scoring average and matched her output in the first two games — the Lynx would have trailed by much more than 32-26 at the half.
Minnesota planned for Moore to launch the leadoff shot of the third period. She converted, triggering a second-half breakout of 16 points, but the more-balanced Sparks finished with four players scoring between 13 and 16 points, with Sims scoring the most.
“The team that punches first seems to set the tone for the game,” Montgomery said.
This time, as opposed to the not-so-great escape in Game 1, the Sparks did a better down the stretch.
“I liked our pace,” Parker said. “We didn’t stop and just let the clock go.”