After Game 1 of the 2017 WNBA Finals, Cheryl Reeve was incensed.
“They had no understanding how hard it was going to be, how hard they’d have to play,” Reeve said. “It’s mind-boggling for a team that’s been here however many times. But maybe it’s old hat for them. Maybe this is something they’ve become softened to.”
You wouldn’t expect this type of reaction from a 1-point loss, especially considering Reeve’s Lynx had to come back from 26 points down to get to that point.
But the two-time WNBA Coach of the Year didn’t care. She wouldn’t accept the idea that her team, now in their sixth finals in seven years, could ever “become softened”, or get to a point of complacency. When her team came through for a Game 2 victory, they took their coach’s side after the game.
“Six Finals in seven years, you know, it’s just two teams that are bringing it every night, and I think our fans have enjoyed it,” Lindsay Whalen said after their Game 2 victory. “There’s been some tense moments and whatnot, but that’s what the Finals are all about. That’s what it is. The best women’s basketball is being played right now, here.”
But this isn’t a series that is based on the wealth of experience the Lynx have built over the last half decade (and change). This is a series built around two teams so evenly matched, that a double-digit victory seems less likely than the 20-plus point comebacks seen in the first two games.
It’s become clear that, despite making six WNBA Finals in seven years, Minnesota’s championship pedigree and experience isn’t good enough to beat LA.
“I don’t know what our biggest lead got to tonight. I know what their’s was in Game 1 on us, and it came down to the last possession,” Whalen said. “Like I said, everybody on the court is such a threat on both teams, and you’ve got two great coaches, a lot of great players just countering each other and adjustments are being made.”
Dating back to the Finals last season, only two of the seven games played between Minnesota and Los Angeles have resulted in a double-digit difference. The last three games specifically have been decided by two points or fewer on each occasion.
In short, these two teams are as evenly matched as it comes in pro sports, and the players are aware of this phenomenon.
“We know how special this series is, and this time that we’re in,” Maya Moore said. “It’s all been motivation to continue to compete, continue to play.”
Between Reeve’s comments before Game 2, the way the way Game 1 ended, and all of last year’s Finals, finding influence isn’t hard for these players. Even the shot hit by Chelsea Gray in Game 1 could have been enough motivation by itself.
As Game 2 hit, Seimone Augustus, who was the defender on the play, had one goal in mind as the contest came towards a close: Not letting her do it again.
“I know for one thing – we weren’t going to let [Chelsea] Gray get a shot.”
As the final play of Minnesota’s series-tying effort, Augustus got her wish. Instead of letting Augustus go by herself on the final play of the game, Rebekkah Brunson, who was active as she’s been all year in Game 2, came to close out on the double team.
Brunson left Candace Parker, who had a huge second half after going scoreless in the first, open at the top of the key. But Whalen, cognizant of the double team, was positioned perfectly to come help if necessary. Their defensive rotations were ready and properly placed for this final play. It resulted in a steal and a victory.
Looking ahead to Friday, Game 3 is assumed to have its own fireworks. Each team has a 20-plus point near-comeback, a one-possession victory and a crazy series of confusing defensive plays under their respective belts — all in two games.
Until further notice, this series has become must-watch television for anyone who enjoys basketball. Unlike anything in the NBA right now, the two best teams in the WNBA are incredibly evenly matched, and it’s absolutely unclear how this series will play out.
Despite Reeve’s justified frustration coming out of Game 1, she’s still well aware of what her team is going up against. Los Angeles carries titles as the defending champs, last year’s MVP and the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.
Of course, the Lynx have this year’s MVP, have won three titles in six appearances over seven years, and are the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
Reeve herself said it perfectly after Game 2.
“Look at what both teams believe in in terms of the intangibles, the defense, and so that’s why you get this. There’s great players on both sides. I think we’re equally hard to play against, and so it’s evenly matched, and that’s why you get these great games.”
For now, she is no longer incensed. But even when she was, it’s all from a place of perspective. She, her team, and the opposition, all know how closely-matched these teams are.
There is no good way to predict how this series will go, and that’s what makes it so fascinating. Even the players, like Moore, have taken notice.
“It’s something that can often get lost, but taking a few moments to realize how special this is,” Moore said. “To just feel it, use it as fuel, to squeeze every drop out of this series.”
At this point, the Lynx are the more storied franchise of the two, but both of these teams have championship pedigree. Both teams want to squeeze out every drop of this series until it’s dry.
Here’s to hoping there are still plenty of drops left.