There are two story lines at work in the WNBA Finals, now tied 1-1 after the Minnesota Lynx beat the Los Angeles Sparks Tuesday night, 79-60.
There's the Lynx, reigning power for the decade, in their fifth WNBA Finals in six years. And there's the Sparks, attempting to topple the monarch.
"We're excited to be part of the Finals," Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike told me prior to the start of the series. "But we also know it isn't just the Finals we want to be part of. We want to create our own championship legacy for the Sparks. And our new era." Indeed, Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve had declared Ogwumike the league's MVP during the regular season.
And then the Sparks went into Minnesota Game 1 and stole home court advantage in the series with a near-perfect performance, a 78-76 win, capped by an Alana Beard baseline jumper over the outstretched closeout of Maya Moore.
Perhaps even more striking than the way the game ended was how close it remained throughout. Neither team led by more than five points at any time, and for all but 6:17 of the game, the teams stayed within two possessions of each other.
Accordingly, Game 1 drew the largest audience of any WNBA Finals game in the history of ABC, peaking at 693,000 viewers for the final few minutes.
Again Tuesday night, neither team took control heading into the second quarter, but then the Lynx did some Lynx things with a run that turned a 22-22 game into a 39-25 halftime edge for Minnesota. Precisely how they got there exemplifies Minnesota, a hyperfocused group whose members seem to know where they'll be on the floor at any time. It's a dynamic best captured by this remarkable Moore full-court feed to Lindsay Whalen that extended the lead to nine points:
Notice Moore battled to grab the rebound herself and took the ball up the floor herself before feeding Whalen. It's a microcosm of her broad-based game, vision, and understanding of teammate tendencies in a single clip.
The Lynx asserted their dominance in other ways. Sylvia Fowles, the league's Defensive Player of the Year and best all-around center, grabbed 15 rebounds, elbows flying, while turning the paint into a dangerous destination. This led to a remarkable exchange, captured on ESPN live mics, as the refs reviewed a foul by Fowles on Ogwumike for potential flagrancy.
Reeve called Ogwumike the "No. 1 flopper in the league." Ogwumike heard this, seemingly amused, while her sister Chiney, a Connecticut Sun standout, took to Twitter, outraged on her behalf.
The moment is a brilliant bit of gamesmanship from Reeve, who can now be sure every official in this series will hear her words in their heads on every borderline call concerning Ogwumike for the remainder of the series. Ogwumike continued scoring as efficiently as she has all season, missing only one shot all night—but she only took six of them in total, as the Lynx used their bruising form of halfcourt defense to deny her the ball. The question of foul vs. flop is essential to the remainder of this series, and Reeve laid down a marker on national television.
Still, the Sparks leave Minnesota with a game. On Tuesday they even countered the Lynx run with a 14-0 third-quarter push of their own that turned a 44-27 game into a 44-41 contest, though the energy required to climb back seemed to tire Los Angeles out. To beat the Lynx really requires staying close and avoiding the kind of run that puts Minnesota well ahead.
To that end, Sparks coach Brian Agler wasn't ready to think big-picture about the series just yet.
"You know, I'm glad we won a game," he said afterwards. "That's going to be very important, and it is, there's no question about it, but from my seat now, I don't really look at it that way. I just sort of focus on the next game, and before the first game I was just focusing on that one. Tonight I was just focusing on this one. Our focus right now is to win one more game. That's what we want to do. We want to win one more game, and then we'll see where we stand and we'll go from there."
That next game is 9 PM EST Friday in Los Angeles, on ESPN2.