Game 5 was an instant classic in a riveting WNBA Finals

ByMechelle Voepel via ESPN logo
Tuesday, November 22, 2016

MINNEAPOLIS -- The 20th season of the WNBA ended with an amazing final game that is sure to warm the hearts of Sparks fans and irritate Lynx fans for years to come.

In Los Angeles' 77-76 victory in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals on Thursday, there were huge shots, key rebounds, crucial steals -- and one controversial basket by the Sparks that appeared to come after the shot clock expired late in the fourth quarter.

It prompted angry postgame comments about officiating from Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve. And it followed a missed backcourt violation in Game 4 -- a mistake the WNBA formally acknowledged -- that went in Minnesota's favor in that close contest the Lynx won in Los Angeles.

While those moments put an unwanted focus on the referees, the fact is that this series was exactly what the WNBA was hoping for with its changes to the playoff format. Doing away with conference affiliation and seeding the top eight teams by record meant that the two best teams -- Minnesota at 28-6 and Los Angeles at 26-8 -- had the chance to meet in the WNBA Finals, despite both being West teams.

The result was a hard-fought, exciting series where momentum was fleeting because both teams were so good. It figured that the last game would come down to the closing seconds, because so little separated the Sparks and the Lynx.

"The team that won this game deserved to win the game," Lynx star Maya Moore said in a very quiet, disappointed Minnesota locker room. "It's just hard to have it come that close. The crowd was awesome, and we're so appreciative of all the support and energy that they brought us, and we gave it everything we had."

But the 19,423 who came to Target Center hoping to see the Lynx win their second consecutive title and tie the Houston Comets with four championships overall instead watched as time ran out on the Lynx after Nneka Ogwumike's winning putback with 3.1 seconds left.

"Everybody at one point made a big play," said Moore, who had 23 points, 11 assists and 6 rebounds. "Nneka made a great hustle play to will them to that last shot."

Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen actually had the final shot, a heave from about half court, that Sparks center Candace Parker watched with some fear.

"It's like, I can't breathe until the ball hit the backboard," Parker said. "There's a possibility Lindsay could make a half-court shot with our luck. Until the last moment when there was zero on the clock and I had the ball, that's when Kristi [Toliver] just tackled me, and it was amazing."

For the league, it was a terrific showcase of the talent that has developed in the 20 years of the WNBA's existence. Sparks coach Brian Agler, who started his WNBA career in Minnesota when the franchise launched in 1999, gave credit to the Lynx for all they've done to raise the bar in the league.

Toliver did the same thing, talking about how much Minnesota's greatness -- the Lynx have been in the WNBA Finals five of the past six years -- set the standard for everyone else.

Toliver said that the night before Game 5, the Sparks watched ESPN's 30-for-30 documentary, "Bad Boys," on the Detroit Pistons' rise to winning NBA titles in 1989 and '90. The Pistons won the first of those championships by beating Los Angeles, after the Lakers had won two in a row.

Considering then-Lakers legend Magic Johnson is one of the Sparks' owners now, you might think it odd that the Sparks would look to the Pistons, of all teams, for inspiration. But the documentary was motivating because it illustrated how Detroit successfully challenged the established greatness of the Lakers.

Because that's what the Sparks were trying to do in this series against the Lynx. And they ended up doing it by winning twice in Minnesota, which few were expecting.

"Minnesota is a great franchise that has won multiple championships," Toliver said. "We had much to learn from them. So for us to beat them on their home court, it speaks volumes about us and who we are. It's something nobody really thought we could do except us."

The Sparks also won Game 1 here at Target Center 78-76 on Alana Beard's buzzer-beating jumper. That was the loss that Reeve particularly lamented, because she thought the Lynx had their worst overall performance in that game.

Minnesota then dominated Game 2 with defense, winning 79-60. The Sparks turned the tables in the third game with the series moving to Los Angeles, winning the aggression and energy battle to prevail 92-75.

With a chance to claim the title at home at Staples Center on Sunday, the Sparks made a few key errors down the stretch, and Minnesota made big plays. The Lynx won 85-79, and it seemed as though they had the momentum -- finally -- wrapped up for the series.

But despite the green-clad bedlam of Target Center on Thursday, the Sparks just didn't get rattled. They trailed 34-28 at halftime, with Ogwumike battling foul trouble. But the Sparks' offense was much sharper in the third quarter, outscoring Minnesota 26-21, and setting up a down-to-the wire fourth quarter.

As was the case in Game 4, the final period was epic all on its own. Parker's layup put the Sparks ahead 71-63 with 3:06 left in the game. The Lynx rallied with an 8-0 run capped by Whalen's steal and layup, tying the score at 71.

At the 1:12 mark, Ogwumike hit the shot that appeared to be released just after the shot clock expired, but it wasn't reviewed by the officials. Reeve was very unhappy about that afterward.

"Get the simple things right and we'll live with the other stuff that happens in a game," Reeve said. "Maybe they still win; I don't know. That's why I don't want to take anything away from L.A.

"There's no question the second half, they scored at will in the paint. We had them at 34 percent in the first half. I thought [we were] defending our tails off, and then in the second half, we didn't get that done."

It was riveting final minute, no matter which side you were rooting for. Seimone Augustus, the longest-tenured Lynx player, tied the score at 73 with a jumper. Then Minnesota's Rebekkah Brunson was fouled, and hit one of two free throws.

Parker answered with a layup off a great feed from Ogwumike to put the Sparks back up 75-74 with 19.7 seconds left. But Moore hit a turnaround baseline jumper to give the Lynx a 76-75 lead.

In the Sparks' final possession, Chelsea Gray -- whose six fourth-quarter points were very big -- missed a shot, but Ogwumike grabbed the rebound. Her follow was blocked by Sylvia Fowles, but Ogwumike got it back and scored this time.

"We said, 'The rebound of your life is coming,'" Toliver explained about what the Sparks told Ogwumike during their last timeout. "And that was the rebound and putback of her life."

It was a heartbreaking end for the Lynx's "Roar for Four" quest, but a dream come true for so many of the Sparks' veteran players who at times had to seriously wonder if this would ever happen.

And for the WNBA, it was a game that will be long remembered.

"They really wanted it," Ogwumike said. "But we wanted it, too."

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