Brian Agler has been in this situation before. In 1997 and 1998, when he was coaching Columbus of the American Basketball League, his team twice made it to the best-of-five league finals — and won a pair of championships in series that went to Game 5.
So the Los Angeles coach understands what the Sparks will face in Thursday's Game 5 of the WNBA Finals. But when Agler looked at his players Sunday, after a Game 4 loss to the Lynx at Staples Center, he was reminded they do not share his wealth of experience.
None of his starters or key reserves ever had played in the WNBA Finals before, much less in a game where a victory would have secured the franchise's first league championship since 2002.
Sunday's 85-79 loss, Agler said, gave them a taste of what to expect in the deciding game at Target Center. It will be even more challenging, playing on the road in a winner-take-all game against a Lynx team that has won three titles in five years.
But Agler knows the Sparks are quick studies, and he believes the experience they gained Sunday helped prepare them for the first Game 5 in franchise history.
"[Game 4] is really going to help us, because it's the first time this team has been in this kind of environment," Agler said. "Going through this, I could just sort of tell from our facial expressions in the locker room, this was new for them.
"We'll learn from this game, and we'll play better Thursday. We competed hard enough. We've just got to put that back together and play with more poise.
"There are certain times during the course of the game that you have to play under control and with a lot of poise, and we didn't quite show that all the time."
Before Game 4, Sparks center Candace Parker said it was "no secret" that the Sparks didn't want the series to come down to a Game 5 in Minnesota. The Lynx are 3-1 at home in the playoffs this year and 24-4 overall in home playoff games.
But the Sparks beat the Lynx in the Finals opener at Target Center and are 2-1 there this season. They seemed less concerned about playing Game 5 on the road than in maintaining the poise Agler referenced.
Parker and teammate Kristi Toliver both said composure has been a hallmark of the Sparks this season, but they lost it briefly late in Game 4.
The Sparks turned the ball over six times in the fourth quarter and missed three of 10 free throws. Four of those turnovers came after they tied the score at 69 with six minutes, one second left in the game.
Nneka Ogwumike made a bad pass on the next Sparks possession, and after the Lynx scored to take a 71-69 lead, a bad pass by Toliver and a foul on Essence Carson helped the Lynx stretch the margin to six.
The Sparks pared the deficit back to two points, but two more turnovers in the final 24.9 seconds prevented them from getting closer. Toliver said she and her teammates would be replaying that final few minutes in their minds, thinking about how to eliminate those mistakes in a game she expects to be just as tight.
"We have to be aggressive, assertive, decisive," Toliver said. "That's going to be the difference, because Game 5 is going to be exactly like Game 4.
"It's going to be a dogfight. It's going to be up and down. It's going to be physical. Hopefully, we'll learn from this experience, knowing how to close out a series."
With three days between Game 4 and Game 5, the Sparks have plenty of time to think about it.
"There were a lot of things we could have done better, and we should have," Parker said. "But we were still in the game at the end.
" We just have to make plays. We know what we have to do.''