As she exited the court for the locker room Sunday night, Seimone Augustus saluted members of Lynx Nation in the crowd, thanking the fans who made the trip to watch what could have been the final game of the WNBA season.
When the buzzer sounded in Game 3, you could already hear the pundits counting Minnesota out. They’re too old. They can’t handle the Sparks’ defensive pressure. It’s the end of a dynasty.
Instead, the Lynx bounced back to give their fans one more chance to cheer them on at home. Minnesota earned an 80-69 win in Game 4 on Sunday at Staples Center to send the Finals to a winner-take-all Game 5 for the second straight year.
“We’re not going to quit,” Maya Moore said after the victory. “That level of competitiveness for 40 minutes is what’s required to win a championship. That’s exactly what we knew we could do. We expect no less from LA on Wednesday.”
Not only did the Lynx bounce back as a team, but starting guards Augustus and Lindsay Whalen looked like themselves again after both going scoreless in Game 3. Whalen helped control the tempo with eight assists and just two turnovers after struggling on that end Friday night. Augustus, coming off the only scoreless playoff game of her career, finished with 10 points and eight rebounds.
Sylvia Fowles (22 points, 14 rebounds) and Moore (15 points, eight rebounds) also did their thing, but it was Rebekkah Brunson who made perhaps the biggest difference Sunday night.
Brunson, the 35-year-old forward who is aiming to win a WNBA-record fifth championship, tallied 18 points and 13 rebounds while going 10-of-13 at the foul line. Her 18 points were the most she’s scored in a playoff game since 2013, and the 13 rebounds were her most since 2015.
“I thought we were incredibly focused because of Lindsay, Seimone, Rebekkah, Maya and Syl,” Lnyx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “Those are my five starters, and they’re unbelievable leaders. They have unbelievable confidence in themselves, and they have this fire in their belly that is second to none. You follow their lead. It’s been a group that has so much confidence in each other, belief in what we’re doing, belief in our identity.”
All of Minnesota’s starters have been All-Star-level players throughout their careers. In these Finals, the Sparks have singled out Brunson by daring her to shoot. LA decided to double team Fowles often, and left Brunson wide open in doing so.
It’s no coincidence that when Brunson has performed well, the Lynx have come out victorious.
In their Game 1 and Game 3 losses, the veteran scored just eight combined points and attempted less than seven shots per game. Game 2 was a different story, as Brunson took 14 shots and finished with 12 points in addition to three blocks.
“Obviously Rebekkah has had moments in the series where she doesn’t necessarily feel great about what’s happened, and she’s someone that just responds,” Reeve said. “They’re picking their poison and they’re telling her, ‘You’re going to have to play well.’ And each time she has, we’ve won. From the standpoint of our team, she is a huge part of our identity, and having her on the floor is really important to us. I was particularly proud of her today.”
Brunson helped set the tone right away, giving the Lynx an 11-10 lead by grabbing a loose ball and finishing through contact. It was Minnesota’s first lead in either game in Los Angeles this series. From there, the Lynx went on a run to finish the first quarter and were in control most of the night.
Brunson had 13 points by halftime, guiding her team to a 43-31 advantage.
“I absolutely felt like I needed to bring more energy tonight,” Brunson said. “And I was hoping that my team would be able to feed off that. I think that I just need to continue to go out there, be aggressive and play hard.”
Brunson, the league’s all-time leader in offensive rebounds, helped Minnesota absolutely dominate LA on the glass Sunday night. The final disparity in rebounds was 48-28, which is the largest margin ever in a Finals game. The Lynx starting frontcourt almost outrebounded the Sparks on their own.
In reality, the game’s final score could have easily been more lopsided. Minnesota took nearly twice as many free-throws as LA, but missed 11 of their 30 attempts.
“They were the most aggressive team. There wasn’t any question,” Sparks coach Brian Agler said. “They doubled their free-throw attempts, and I’m not saying that to debate the officiating. That’s not the point. The point is that they were a lot more aggressive, got themselves to the free-throw line, gave themselves opportunities.”
The Lynx had a commanding 58-39 lead late in the third quarter, but in keeping with the theme of this series, the Sparks made it interesting thanks to a 3-point shooting barrage from Odyssey Sims. Augustus then pushed the lead to 69-57 with about five minutes remaining to quieten the crowd. LA never got closer than eight the rest of the way.
The advanced numbers display a true tale of two games for Augustus. She was a minus-18 on Friday – the worst in the game – and tied the best mark in Sunday’s contest with a plus-16 rating.
Augustus said the Lynx are thrilled to be heading back to Minneapolis, where they will play Game 5 at Williams Arena on the campus of the University of Minnesota. Or as they call it, ‘The Barn’.
“Our fans built a home environment that is tough for anyone to play in,” Augustus said. “The Barn is a different atmosphere where the fans feel like they are sitting on top of you as opposed to Target Center. It’s going to be amazing in that gym. It’s going to be loud, our fans are going to have fun, and we’re going to enjoy being in that atmosphere.”
The Lynx will aim to capture their fourth championship in the last seven years, which would match the Houston Comets’ record for the most titles in WNBA history.
By Justin Lester
First appeared on WNBA.com