Expect Lynx, Sparks to look for another fast and furious first quarter in Game 3

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Friday, September 29, 2017

LOS ANGELES -- Nneka Ogwumike held an ice bag to her chin in the locker room after taking an inadvertent elbow from the Minnesota Lynx's Sylvia Fowles in Game 2 of the WNBA Finals.

"You just have to play through it, you can't let up," the Los Angeles Sparks forward said. "I mean, everybody on both sides is really going hard."

In most ways, the WNBA Finals have been the series we expected. Slow starts aside -- the Lynx on Sunday and the Sparks on Tuesday -- the teams rallied, making for down-to-the-wire finishes: 85-84 in favor of the Sparks in Game 1; 70-68 Lynx in Game 2.

So what will we see in Game 3 at Staples Center on Friday (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET)?

In the opener, the Sparks were able to put the Lynx on their heels almost from tipoff, shooting 60 percent from the field in the first quarter, as compared to Minnesota's 26.7 percent. The 21-point edge the Sparks had after the first 10 minutes helped them stave off a furious Lynx rally, although they needed Chelsea Gray's jump shot with 2 seconds left.

On Tuesday, the Lynx shot 63.2 percent in the first quarter to the Sparks' 22.2 and led by 18. Minnesota never surrendered the lead the rest of the game, but the final minute was as precarious as the two-point margin indicates.

One might assume, then, that the winner of the first quarter on Friday will have the upper hand, right?

Indeed, but the trend goes beyond the first two games of this series. Since the start of the 2016 season, the Lynx and Sparks have met 13 times, with the team ahead at the end of the first quarter winning 11 times. The exceptions? Last year's decisive Game 5 of the WNBA Finals, when the Lynx led by one point after the first quarter but the Sparks won the game by one point on Ogwumike's basket with 3.1 seconds left. And their Aug. 11 regular-season contest, when the teams were tied after the first quarter -- and the Sparks went on to win by six.

"It will be a test of wills, for sure in the beginning of the game," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. "Because both teams will try to establish themselves early."

To a degree, it makes sense that the team getting off to a better start increases its chances of winning. But with two teams this evenly matched -- the Lynx are 55-13 combined over the past two regular seasons, the Sparks 52-16 -- there is all the more importance to trying to establish who's in control.

"We have to come out with a sense of urgency," Sparks guard/forward Alana Beard said. "We came out with a sense of urgency and a great mindset in the first game and didn't have it in the second game.

"In order for us to be as good as we can be, everyone has to do their part. It's something we can watch video of, that we can correct."

It's a similar thought process from the Lynx, who definitely do not want a repeat of last year's Game 3 of the WNBA Finals, when they trailed by 15 after one quarter and lost by 17 in Los Angeles at USC's Galen Center.

There's also the fact that the Sparks have been difficult to beat at home this year. They were 16-1 at Staples Center in the regular season, and they won both their playoff semifinal games as the host team, as well, although one of those tilts was held at Walter Pyramid in Long Beach. The Sparks' loss at Staples Center this year came on July 20 to Chicago, 82-80, when the Sky's Stefanie Dolson hit a 3-pointer with 13.7 seconds left.

No matter where the games are held, though, these teams know that the championship might come down to one or two plays. That and the importance of the first quarter means there has to be a very high intensity level from tipoff.

"It's really about just going out and playing," Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson said. "We're really competitive and have really good teams. We're relentless, and neither one of us is going to give up. I think that's what makes it exciting. Neither one of us feels like we are safe at any point in the game."