MINNEAPOLIS — Sylvia Fowles sensed it was going to happen. So did Renee Montgomery and Rebekkah Brunson. They all felt like Minnesota’s Lindsay Whalen was ready to have a big performance in Game 2 of the WNBA Finals.
“I was telling her all day today: ‘The way they are guarding you, you can score,'” Montgomery said after the Lynx held off the Sparks 70-68 and evened the best-of-five series at 1-1 on Tuesday. “I told her, ‘You’re the pull-up queen, that’s your wheelhouse.’ I was in her corner, hyping her up the whole time.”
Whalen, of course, was pretty hyped all on her own. Nobody on the Lynx is a fiercer competitor than she is, and the point guard was stewing after Minnesota’s 85-84 loss in Sunday’s opener.
“She’s a little bulldog. When she’s rowdy, I love it,” Fowles said. “I feed off that energy. There’s no fear with Lindsay. She’s going all out, and she expects everybody else to do that too.
“I knew she had it in her [Monday] when we were in watching film. We all got frustrated because coach was unhappy, and she was nagging, nagging, nagging. And we were like, ‘OK, we get it.’ So I think tonight we were determined to come out on the right foot, and for Lindsay, she was going to be a factor in this game.”
Whalen scored six of the Lynx’s first seven points, and she finished with a team-high 14. It was a balanced attack from Minnesota, with all five starters scoring in double figures: Maya Moore and Fowles had 13 points, Brunson 12 and Seimone Augustus 11.
Fowles, who also had a WNBA Finals-record 17 rebounds, will acknowledge that coach Cheryl Reeve had a right to nag her players heading into Game 2, after the Lynx’s hideous start in Sunday’s loss. They were behind by as much as 26 points in the first quarter.
On Tuesday, though, the tables turned, and the Sparks struggled in the opening period, trailing 28-10. The Lynx looked like a different team than the one that seemed discombobulated for most of the first period on Sunday.
“Coach just wanted me to be aggressive,” Whalen said. “We talked yesterday, last night, at shootaround this morning. She said that I would set the tone for the game. I tried to pick my spots.
“There were a couple of jumpers and plays in the second half I wish I could have back, but overall, the start was good for us.”
The Lynx were comfortably ahead 45-26 at halftime. But they needed all of that 19-point lead. Just as Minnesota rallied Sunday and forced the game to go down to the final possession, Los Angeles did the same thing on Tuesday.
“I don’t think we had a collective sense of urgency starting the game,” the Sparks’ Alana Beard said. “I think it was a different type of hunger from them, but it wasn’t unexpected by us. We just didn’t do what we needed to do.”
The Sparks got just three points combined from post players Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike in the first half on Tuesday. But the Sparks’ offense started to work better in the third quarter. And by the time the game was over, Parker had 17 points (all in the second half) and Ogwumike 11.
“We weren’t able to even get the ball where we wanted, let alone the shots we wanted,” Ogwumike said of the first half. “We had to assert ourselves, and that didn’t start happening until late.”
The Lynx were up 60-50 going into the fourth quarter, and the final 10 minutes were tense. A long 2-pointer from Parker cut the Lynx lead to three, 69-66, with 1:21 left.
Moore extended the edge to 70-66 with a free throw, but Parker hit two from the stripe to make it 70-68. Moore missed a jump shot, and then the game turned into a battle of turnovers.
First, there was a five-second call on the Sparks while trying to inbound the ball. Beard, who was attempting to make the pass, said, “They guarded it well, and we just didn’t get it in.”
But then the Lynx gave it right back, when Augustus lost the ball out of bounds. The Sparks had possession with 13 seconds left. They had won Sunday on Chelsea Gray’s late jumper, but Brunson kept that from happening again, knocking the ball away from Gray with 3.9 seconds to play. Moore picked it up and passed to Whalen, who dribbled out the clock.
It seemed appropriate that the ball was in Whalen’s hands at the end. She faced a big challenge this season, suffering a broken left (nonshooting) hand on Aug. 2 and missing the rest of the regular season. Whalen, 35, had to hope she could heal in time for the playoffs. She returned during Minnesota’s semifinal series against the Washington Mystics.
On Sunday, Whalen had six assists but just five points and was clearly disappointed.
“Whalen took a lot personally from Game 1,” Reeve said. “She realized she wasn’t aggressive enough and came out and really established herself [Tuesday]. It created openings for us. If you’re around her, you would have guessed she was going to come out that way to help lead this team.”
Montgomery, who moved into the starting lineup when Whalen was injured and now is back in her role as sixth woman, got seven points off the bench on Tuesday. She did her part to help Minnesota start strong, and she said that she and the rest of the Lynx followed Whalen’s lead.
“There are just certain things you know Lindsay Whalen can do,” Montgomery said. “And boy, when she starts doing them, I’m like, ‘Uh-oh, she’s going to cause trouble.'”
The kind of trouble the Lynx love, of course, and that helped them head to Los Angeles all tied up with the Sparks.
“It’s just two great teams battling it out,” Whalen said. “I think everybody is trying to counter each other and just play their hardest. You never know which play is going to make the difference, so it was just a lot heart and hustle.
“I’m trying to enjoy this. It was kind of rough after [Sunday’s game], and the last 48 hours was tough. But I think a lot of determination from the whole team went into today, and I was happy to come out and get a couple of shots to go. Sometimes, that’s what us point guards try to do, give that extra punch. Coach put me in the right mindset, and I kind of went from there.”