LOS ANGELES — For their first 11 years, the face of the Los Angeles Sparks was Lisa Leslie.
Three-time WNBA MVP. Eight-time All-Star. Two league championships. Leslie retired in 2009, a year after the Sparks took Candace Parker as the No. 1 pick in the draft.
Parker was expected to pick up where Leslie left off. Individually, the former Tennessee star certainly did. She’s been rookie of the year, a two-time MVP and MVP of the All-Star Game.
But she has come up short in delivering the franchise’s first WNBA title since the Leslie-led Sparks won in 2001 and ’02.
Parker can change all that tonight. The Sparks take a 2-1 lead over the Minnesota Lynx into Game 4 of the WNBA Finals. A victory gives Los Angeles its third title in franchise history. A loss sends the best-of-five series back to Minnesota and allows the Lynx another chance at winning win their record-tying fourth championship.
“We can’t expect them to lay down and just give it to us,” Parker said yesterday after practice. “Tomorrow is special, but so is this playoff run.”
The league’s 20th anniversary season is concluding with a matchup featuring two teams with a combined winning percentage of .794, highest in WNBA Finals history.
The Lynx, winners of three of the last five WNBA titles, have been down before in this series. The Sparks won Game 1 on the road by two points. Minnesota responded with a 19-point win in Game 2 before the series shifted to the West Coast. Behind Parker and current league MVP Nneka Ogwumike, the Sparks raced to an early 22-point lead and took Game 3, 92-75.
“The things that we can control are our focus, our intensity and our will to win,” said Alana Beard, whose last-second jumper clinched Game 1. The Lynx cut the Sparks’ lead to eight points but never led in Friday’s loss.
“You can’t win a WNBA Finals back on our heels like that. We never want to do that again,” Lynx veteran Maya Moore said. “We don’t want to take that long to respond. It’s something that has been on the forefront of our minds. The start of Game 4 will be intense.”
Minnesota’s Rebekkah Brunson, who scored 14 points Friday, could become the league’s first five-time champion. She won her first title with Sacramento in 2005.
“All of the small things we’ve done to get here, we just need to continue to do those,” she said.
The Sparks forced 13 turnovers that generated 24 points in Game 3.
“The 13 turnovers isn’t a crazy amount of turnovers. It’s a crazy amount of points off of them,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “It was where we turned it over, around the three-point line where it’s hard to build your transition defense. We need to get a better understanding of what it’s going to take to be successful in the WNBA Finals.”
The Lynx has little time to figure it out. Parker has had nothing but time while waiting to make the first WNBA Finals appearance of her long career. The rest of her teammates, with the exception of little-used reserve Ann Wauters, have never been this far before either.
“We’re going to bring the same energy, the same competitiveness, the same drive and will that we did in Game 3,” Sparks guard Kristi Toliver said, “and hopefully we’ll have no regrets.”