INDIANAPOLIS – Cheryl Reeve begged and pleaded and flailed her arms. The Lynx coach shed her jacket in frustration and had a constant expression of bewilderment.
She probably didn’t recognize the team on the floor, not for much of the night anyway.
The two-time champions looked frazzled in a way that felt unusual in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals.
They were careless with the ball. They took poor shots and missed easy ones. They didn’t handle stifling defense with confidence. They didn’t play with heightened urgency until it was too late.
Their defensive effort left their coach particularly frustrated.
“We identified before the game that in order to win a championship, you’ve got to play great defense,” Reeve said. “We just didn’t get that done.”
Put in simplest terms, the Indiana Fever played like the more desperate team in a 75-69 victory, and now the Finals shifts to a winner-take-all Game 5 back at Target Center on Wednesday night.
The WNBA Finals have not reached a Game 5 since 2009, but this one felt inevitable. It’s a fitting conclusion to a tug-of-war series between two teams that appear evenly matched in terms of talent and grit.
Game 5 should be a doozy.
“You’re seeing passion on display,” Reeve said. “You’re seeing great athleticism, teamwork and all that good stuff. It’s only fitting that we go to five games.”
Of course, the Lynx would have preferred to pop champagne Sunday night, but they didn’t play well enough to accomplish that.
The Fever showed more aggression at both ends and was rewarded for that. One stat, in particular, underlined the difference.
The Lynx shot nine free throws for the game. Indiana point guard Briann January shot 12.
And that had nothing to do with the officiating.
“Give them credit, they played hard,” Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen said. “That’s a great team.”
The Lynx braced for a strong pushback by the Fever, which is 5-0 in elimination games in this postseason.
Now both teams should act desperate.
The Lynx need their big guns to rise to the moment in an ultimate elimination game. They need more from Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles and Rebekkah Brunson.
And they need Whalen to play inspired like she did in Game 4, still hobbled by an ankle injury but determined to put up a fight.
Whalen was one of the few bright spots with 16 points, looking like her old self on drives to the basket.
Not much else went right.
Moore scored 20 points but needed 20 shots to get there. The Fever disrupted her offensive creativity by being physical with her.
Fowles battled foul trouble and made zero impact, which created a gaping hole in the middle of her team’s defense.
Augustus missed 10 of her 15 shots. Brunson contributed only four points.
The Lynx had a few nice spurts in the second half, but for the most part, their veteran corps didn’t do nearly enough.
That won’t cut it in Game 5.
“Our job is to take care of our bodies and get ready for Wednesday,” Whalen said.
All four games have been fiercely contested, a fabulous showcase for women’s basketball. These are two deep, talented teams that expect and know how to win and have competed tooth-and-nail in pursuit of a ring.
All four games have decided by a total of 21 points. Nothing has come easy for either team on either end. It’s hard to say which one is the better team at this point. Game 5 will answer that question.
“It’s absolutely been a great series,” Reeve said.
Veterans on both sides appreciate what this series has meant to them individually, collectively and for the overall good of their sport. Whoever wins this will have earned it.
“This has been very competitive, very high level basketball,” Whalen said.
Reeve used an interesting analogy when explaining the relaxed vibe around her team before Game 4. The first playoff series, she said, is always more stressful than the Finals because they have reached their desired destination.
“[Now] we’re just trying to be king of the mountain,” Reeve said.
They didn’t play like it in Game 4, but they have one more chance to settle that matter. They should be appropriately desperate this time.