MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Lynx have a core group of players participating in their fifth WNBA Finals in the last six seasons. The Los Angeles Sparks only have one player who has made it this far before, and she is a seldom-used reserve.
When it came to poise, consistency and playmaking in Game 1, however, the Sparks looked like the battle-tested group. And now the Lynx are left to lean on their experience to dig out of another hole.
The defending champion Lynx turned the ball over 16 times and looked lost defensively against the Sparks' pick-and-roll in the 78-76 loss on Sunday and got back to work on Monday knowing that if they don't clean things up, their pursuit of a record-tying fourth title will swirl down the drain.
"If you don't handle a pick-and-roll any better than what we did, we looked like a high school team that was going against it for the first time," coach Cheryl Reeve said on Monday. "That was disappointing. And throwing it right to them."
The Lynx committed 11 of their 16 turnovers in the first half and had two more in the final three minutes of the game, and the Sparks took advantage. They scored 18 points off of Minnesota's turnovers while only allowing four points off of their own 12 miscues. It was a clean, calm performance for a group that includes 12th-year pro Alana Beard and ninth-year star Candace Parker, both of whom have finally made it to the league's biggest stage.
"I was happy with how poised and focused we were," Sparks coach Brian Agler said. "We only have one player that has even been in this situation before. But we do have veteran players. They look at this as this is their moment to get this opportunity. ... Candace and Alana, they have played long careers and they don't get this (every year). So they know how to cherish this moment."
Game 2 of the best-of-five series is Tuesday night in Minneapolis, and the Lynx don't have to look back far to find inspiration and comfort in a precarious position. They lost Game 1 at home to the Indiana Fever in last year's finals, but ultimately prevailed in five games for their third championship.
So there is no panic, but there is also a realization that their opponent this season with Parker and Beard and MVP Nneka Ogwumike and sharpshooter Kristi Toliver presents a far bigger obstacle.
"You have to really rely on each other in moments like this," said Lynx forward Maya Moore, who was scoreless in the first half but scored 18 in the second. "This team has really been doing that all season with our ability to make adjustments and bounce back. This is the greatest challenge of the season for us, having to bounce back in a tough loss at home. I'm confident that we will be better as each game goes on."
Just like during a tense regular season series, the matchup between the teams with the two best records in the league was tight all the way through Game 1. No team led by more than five points and Beard hit the game-winner on a shot from the corner just before the final buzzer sounded. The big finish and the anticipated matchup delivered ratings that were 25 percent higher than last year's broadcast of Game 1. The 0.5 overnight rating on ABC was the highest for a Game 1 since 2010, though it likely was smaller thanks to competing against the NFL on Sunday afternoon.
"I think we're really good at handling high-pressure situations," Ogwumike said. "I think you're going to see that more from us in this series and as well from them. The game was remarkably close. That's what the finals is all about. You have the two best teams duking it out and it literally came down to the last play. We just have to understand we need to give ourselves as much of an advantage as we can."
Reeve said she was awake until 3 a.m. trying to figure out what caused the sloppiness.
"The stuff that we were doing that was controllable on our end was the headscratchers," Reeve said. "We're going to watch the video and they're going to see it. Whether they want to or not doesn't matter. We will watch every possession."