Well, no one can say they didn't get their money's worth. Disappointing as it was for the Lynx and their fans, Game 5 of the WNBA Finals at Target Center--won by Los Angeles, 77-76--was an epic showcase for the league and an affirmation of its new playoff format.
The league changed the playoff structure this year to take the top eight teams and seed them by record, rather than dividing them by conference affiliation. That allowed the Sparks and Lynx to meet in the finals, and they packed five games and 11 days with thrilling basketball.
Candace Parker won her first WNBA championship, and she wept afterward for many reasons. Parker was extraordinarily close to her college coach, Tennessee's Pat Summitt, and dedicated this season to her mentor after Summitt died in June of complications from Alzheimer's disease. Parker wore Volunteer-orange shoes throughout the playoffs, with Summitt's initials written on them.
In the postgame news conference, Sparks coach Brian Agler was messing around with his phone, stalling for a moment while he enlisted some help. Then he held it up to the media and pushed a button. The phone played "Rocky Top,'' the Tennessee fight song, and Parker embraced Agler and cried again.
"I had to do that,'' Agler said. "I've never been around somebody that has been critiqued so hard, and I've not ever been around anybody that I'm more happy for than Candace, for what she's gone through this season. It's been unbelievable.''
The game featured 24 lead changes and 11 ties and was won on Nneka Ogwumike's layup with 2.1 seconds left.
Parker scored a game-high 28 points in Thursday's deciding game, including 18 in the second half. After being frustrated early in the first half--and taking a hard elbow to the mouth in the second quarter--she found her footing. Parker made four of 10 shots in the first half and eight of 12 in the second.
After the game, Parker laughed at the fact that Agler told her the series would come down to defense and rebounding--because, she said, she heard the same from Summitt for four years at Tennessee. He was right, as the Sparks beat the Lynx at their own game in the series finale.
When the Lynx were successful in this series, they were locked in on defense and beasts on the boards. They entered Game 5 outrebounding the Sparks by an average of 8.3 per game. Thursday, they were outrebounded 33-27--including a stunning 19-9 margin in the second half. The Sparks also hauled down 14 offensive rebounds to the Lynx's six, with a 9-2 differential in the second half.
The Lynx missed two layups midway through the fourth quarter when the Sparks were building a 71-63 lead. In the second half, their offense occasionally looked rushed at some points and sluggish at others. On the final sequence, Chelsea Gray missed a jump shot; Ogwumike got the rebound; Ogwumike's shot was blocked by Sylvia Fowles; Ogwumike got a second offensive board; and, finally, she tucked in a layup for the winning basket.
"It happened throughout the game,'' Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said of the missed layups. "I thought we had decent opportunities at the rim that we didn't convert on. That was unfortunate. In this league, you have to have a cushion, because you don't want to put it in the officials' hands.''
Reeve said the Sparks "scored at will in the paint'' in the second half. The Sparks owned a 44-30 advantage in points in the paint, including a 36-20 edge in the second half.
The Sparks won despite three of their starters--Ogwumike, Kristi Toliver and Essence Carson--getting into foul trouble in the first half. Ogwumike finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds; she and Parker combined to grab 10 of those offensive boards.
Some Lynx reaction to the game:
SYLVIA FOWLES, who dislocated a finger on her right hand with 7:31 left in the third quarter but played much of the rest of the game: I won't say I'm disappointed. I think my team handled themselves very well. I'm proud of all of them. I think we answered LA's calls; they answered our calls back.
REBEKKAH BRUNSON, who had nine points and tied Fowles with a team-high nine rebounds: It's unfortunate. We knew defense and rebounding would be the keys to the game. In the last five minutes, we weren't getting the stops needed. In the end, it came down to a rebound. We just didn't get it done. ... I'm proud of my team. We never gave up.
MAYA MOORE, who had a team-high 23 points and 11 assists: It's a heartbreaking way to lose. The team that won the game deserved to win the game. It's just hard to come that close. We gave it everything we had. We just had to keep believing, playing as hard as possible. You see the replay in your head of that last play, all the things you would have wanted to do better. It's going to be a tough one to swallow.
Reeve spent the first part of the postgame news conference excoriating the officials. She said Ogwumike's shot with 1:12 left in the game--which gave LA a 73-71 lead--came after the shot clock had expired. Still photos showed the ball in Ogwumike's hands and the clock at zero.
Reeve congratulated the Sparks and said she didn't want to take anything away from their victory. But she was livid at yet another muffed call by WNBA officials. Monday, the league issued a statement admitting officials should have called an eight-second violation against the Lynx late in Game 4.
"Nneka Ogwumike's shot was not good,'' Reeve said. "It was reviewable at the time she shot it. The referees at that point didn't think anything was wrong. They didn't understand it was the end of the clock. They didn't hear the shot clock. When they put the ball in play, the play is no longer reviewable.
"It's not fair to the players. It's not enough just to apologize and send out a memo that they got something wrong. These players are so invested, and something must be done about the officiating in this league, because it is not fair to these great players we have.''
When asked what could be done to improve the officiating, Reeve answered:
"I don't get paid enough to have to do somebody else's job, too. Just get the simple things right, simple. Eight-second call. Shot-clock violation. Get the simple things right, and we'll live with the other stuff that happens in a game.
"It's unfortunate we're even having this discussion. The number of people that have contacted us and said the shot was no good, it's unfortunate. I mean, I don't know what happens from there. Maybe they still win. That's why I don't want to take anything away from LA. That doesn't stop the other teams from bitching and complaining when it's happened in our favor, so we might as well get our bitching and complaining in as well.''