In the middle of a chaotic ending — the crowd screaming, the Sparks pressing, the court seemingly shrunk into just enough space for 10 bodies to fit — was a calm, collected Maya Moore.
As Game 4 wound down, Moore’s face looked the same as it did when she calmly warmed up two hours priors. It didn’t matter how many defenders flew at her. It didn’t matter what the scoreboard or shot clock read. It didn’t matter that with the Sparks inching closer, and the Lynx season on the line, that the weight of her team’s WNBA Finals chances rested in her hands.
That was a safe place for them to be, after all. Moore scored a game-high 31 points, grabbed nine rebounds and dished out five assists in the Lynx’s 85-79 win over the Sparks at the Staples Center on Sunday. The Sparks led the series, 2-1, coming into the game, and could have won their first title since 2002 with a win. But Moore, and the Lynx behind her, had different plans.
Now the series shifts back to Minnesota on Thursday, where a do-or-die Game 5 will crown a champion.
“Obviously, Maya Moore hit some big shots,” Sparks Coach Brian Agler said. “She made a lot of big plays on both ends of the floor.”
Moore exudes the collectiveness of a Lynx team that’s won three championships in five years.
She operates with a rhythm that keeps defenders guessing at all times. She is never visibly excited after making a shot, or visibly frustrated after missing one. Yet she had not been her usual dominating self to this point in the finals, scoring 18 points in Game 1, 21 points on 16 attempts in Game 2 and then just nine points in the Lynx’s 17-point Game 3 loss.
There seemed to be more of the same Sunday, as Moore missed her first five shots. But she quickly put herself at the center of the Lynx offense and jogged into halftime with 13 points and seven rebounds.
The Sparks, while lacking the offensive firepower they showed in Game 3, trailed by six at the break thanks to 11 first-half points by Chelsea Gray.
Gray, coming off the bench, led the Sparks with 20 in the game.
Candace Parker, who scored a game-high 24 points in Game 3, was guarded by Moore for a good portion of the contest. She finished with 14 points and made just four of her 14 field-goal attempts.
“Obviously, we needed every bit of what Maya did,” Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve said. “It wasn’t easy.”
That’s because the Sparks came roaring back in the second half. But they never got over the hump.
Kristi Tolliver hit a three-pointer to pull the Sparks within one toward the end of the third, and Moore knocked one down on the next possession. Gray hit a three-pointer on the other end and Moore came down and nailed another.
The rest of the game played out this way, with the Sparks scratching the surface and the Lynx knocking them a few steps back every time. Moore made six free throws in the final four minutes, and 11 of 12 in the game. With the Sparks trailing by four with five seconds left, and clinging to the faintest hope of a comeback, Moore snuck behind Nneka Ogwumike and stole the inbound pass.
Whatever the Sparks did, Moore had an answer. But when she was asked after the game what rattles her, she wasn’t quick to come up with one.
“What rattles me? Um...” Moore said, and then she paused for 10 seconds. “Sometimes I get rocked on screens, that rattles me a little bit.”
“No, I know what you’re saying,” she continued, smiling. “... At the end of the day I just want to leave it all out on the floor, no regrets. That’s probably when I feel the worst, if I feel like there was something left that I didn’t give.”
That was not the case on Sunday, and her team can still win the WNBA championship because of it.