The Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx are one win away from meeting in the WNBA Finals after double-digit victories in the first two games of their respective semifinal series.
The defending champion Lynx are seeking their fourth crown in six years, buoyed by a quartet that won Olympic gold with the U.S. national team in Rio. The Sparks have a shot at their first title since 2002 behind league MVP Nneka Ogwumike and two-time MVP Candace Parker.
In St. Paul, Minnesota, Maya Moore scored 26 points, Lindsay Whalen had 12 of her 16 points in the fourth quarter and the Lynx beat the Phoenix Mercury 96-86 Friday night. Diana Taurasi had 31 points for the Mercury, who lost the series opener by 15 points.
In Los Angeles, Parker had 20 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in the Sparks’ 99-84 win over the Chicago Sky. Ogwumike added 18 points.
Reserve Clarissa Dos Santos scored 15 points and Jamierra Faulkner added 14 off the bench for the Sky, who lost Game 1 by 20 points.
Here are some things to watch when the semifinals resume Sunday:
The Mercury started the playoffs in unprecedented fashion. Due to a combination of their No. 8 seed and the new playoff format, they’ve had four playoff games on the road and none at home. After winning single-elimination games at Indiana and New York, they looked flat in two losses in Minnesota.
“We knew it was going to be a tall task,” Taurasi said. “We’re not the freshest team, I can tell you that. We’re not the youngest team either. But we’ve just got to find a way.”
League sixth woman of the year Jantel Lavender hit 10 of 11 shots and scored 20 points, matching Parker’s total in the Sparks’ win.
“She’s a microwave. That’s what I call her,” Parker said. “She comes and she heats up.”
Ogwumike praised Lavender’s willingness to do whatever is needed. Lavender had started the last two seasons before coming off the bench all year for the Sparks.
“She’ll set a screen, run, box out,” Ogwumike said. “She’s that front court push that helps us control the flow of our game.”
GET GRINER GOING
Phoenix center Brittney Griner has been a non-factor in the first two games against the Lynx. She scored 16 points but had just two rebounds and was a minus-17 in the Game 1 blowout. Griner picked up two early fouls Friday night and was pulled less than two minutes in. She returned five minutes later and she got a third foul. Griner finished with two points and two rebounds in 18 minutes.
“This happens in the game of basketball,” Taurasi said. “And the way she reacts to it is going to tell us a lot about her. And I have the utmost confidence that she’s going to come ready to play when we get home.”
WHERE’S THE D?
Minnesota isn’t happy with its defensive performance so far. Phoenix is averaging 90.5 point in the first two games. The Lynx allowed 77.0 points per game this season, and WNBA coach of the year Cheryl Reeve hopes going on the road will hone the defense.
“We’ve been the best road team for reasons of playing great defense and rebounding the basketball,” she said. “Offense is not going to be easy, so the mindset is if we don’t score, they don’t score.”
Clarissa Dos Santos led Chicago with 15 points off the bench. The 6-foot-1 center averages 2.9 points as the second-best Brazilian on the Sky roster. Erika de Souza, a 10-year veteran, averages 5.8 points.
“Her vertical’s not the greatest,” Chicago coach Pokey Chatman said of Dos Santos. “Her attitude and effort is all you talk about in coaching. She’s able to affect the game. Her play and her energy spilled over to the other players. We’ll make sure we take that into Sunday.”
Freelance writer Patrick Donnelly in St. Paul, Minnesota, contributed to this report.