To get a feel for how this Lynx-Sparks WNBA Finals has gone, take a look at Lynx center Sylvia Fowles’ right eye, which Tuesday was bloody red. Or Nneka Ogwumike’s right cheek, with a bandage covering the stitches like eye-black.
Fowles caught Ogwumike hard in Game 3, a Sparks win. Ogwumike poked Fowles in the eye in the second half of Game 4, a Lynx win.
“It speaks to the rivalry,” said the Sparks’ Ogwumike, one of the league’s premier post players. “It wouldn’t be a Finals without a scratch here and there. I hope everybody enjoys watching it as much as we enjoy playing it.”
Said Fowles, the league’s MVP: “It’s all about the intensity.”
Through four games, two victories apiece, they have pushed, shoved, battled.
And so have their teams. Which is why, for the second consecutive year they will meet, on the Lynx’s home court, in a fifth and final game at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Williams Arena.
Each team has punched early twice, and won. Both have responded to those punches to make games tight in the fourth quarter. For two years these two have been the best in the WNBA. Between the two Finals series and the three games they played against each other in the regular season, they’ve combined to score 908 points in 12 games.
They know each other. There is mutual respect. Like? Don’t go there. Ogwumike isn’t turning the other cheek; Fowles isn’t in the mood for congeniality, either.
The point is, through all the hundreds of possessions in this series, with all the hours of game tape, both believe Game 5 will come down to something more than a number in a boxscore.
“It’s sheer will,” Lynx guard Seimone Augustus said. “All it comes down to is hearts and guts. Because we know everything. We played each other so many times over the last few years. It’s no secret what we’re going to run. That’s all out there.”
Augustus remembered the opening moments of last year’s Game 5 as an adrenaline-driven blur, struggling to catch her breath with all the intensity.
“It will be the same Wednesday,” she said.
There will be adjustments. The Sparks harped about not letting the Lynx beat them on the boards like they did Sunday, when Minnesota outrebounded them 48-28, getting a whopping 16 offensive rebounds. The Lynx know that a smaller lineup can be a card in the hand, but that the team, so far, has gone the way its starting five has gone, particularly Rebekkah Brunson, who had 18 points, 13 rebounds and 13 free throw attempts in Game 4.
But mostly, it’s about intangibles.
“It’s like we told them, ‘Game 5, it’s time for the players,’ ” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “Coaches, get out of the way. This is about players making plays. Recognizing opportunities, recognizing those moments.”
For the Lynx a win would mean a fourth title in seven seasons. For the Sparks, it would be the franchise’s fourth as well, but it would also make them the first back-to-back champions in 15 years, since they won titles in 2001 and 2002.
“We can look at it as a disappointment that we’re playing in a Game 5, or we can look at it as an opportunity,” Sparks star Candace Parker said. “If you poll anyone around the league, if you have one game and an opportunity to win a championship, you take it.”
That’s what it has come down to. A tight series where the margin for error is small, where every mistake can result in a basket for the other team.
“The longer you can focus, the more determined you are to make a cut here, or stay on your defensive assignment, that’s what will make the difference,” Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen said. “If you can keep that focus and keep that energy longer, you have a chance to be successful.”
By the time Game 5 ends there will likely be more bumps and bruises. A few broken hearts, too.
And a four-time WNBA champion.
“There is nothing better than this,” Reeve said. “And I suspect they feel the same way. It brings out the best in you.”