Sparks and Lynx continue history of close finishes in WNBA Finals

The WNBA Finals commenced Sunday with the odd but standard Lynx custom of batting the tip-off willfully to the opponent. From there, things got totally weird.

The Sparks Usain-bolted to a mountainous 28-2 edge — if not for Maya Moore’s basket, Minnesota fans would have developed leg cramps from standing, in accordance with another tradition, until the team’s first score — only to hand over the lead late in a one-point Los Angeles win.

Two nights later, the Lynx, who strategically concede the tip to secure the opening possession in subsequent quarters, rocketed ahead by 20 in the third period. They escaped with a two-point victory after neither side could execute the most basic of basketball functions — an inbounds pass.

The lesson here: Turn the channel or leave the arena early at great risk. The script from New England’s astounding Super Bowl comeback in February —blowout to nail-biter — has been adapted here.

Sparks-Lynx championship round games that hang in the balance until the last ticks of the clock are nothing new, even if the Finals plot has been tweaked.

In last year’s series, won by the Sparks, the bookend matchups went to the wire. The difference was, in contrast to this week, the squads seemed tethered together, neither building a lead beyond eight in Game 1 and five in Game 5.

“Look at what both teams believe in — in terms of the intangibles, the defense — and that’s why you get this,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, whose curt in-game television interviews would make San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich proud, said Tuesday after the current series was leveled at 1-1. Friday’s encounter at Staples Center sets up as a critical tiebreaker.

“No lead is safe, and you’re never out of the game,” noted Sparks forward Candace Parker.

Parker apparently is starting her own tradition, with another physical mishap in warmups Tuesday. While she and the Sparks downplayed the turned ankle as insignificant, Parker’s lack of production in the first half — zero points, zero rebounds — suggested otherwise.

After the break, Parker adjusted, finishing with a team-best 17 points to go along with five rebounds and six assists. But the rally she inspired ran dry just one hoop short of culmination.

At the Lynx video review session of Game 1, Reeve proved far more loquacious than she is on TV. The coach blistered her players over the dreadful start, to which they responded positively.

Reeve had foretold the scolding Sunday to the media, saying when asked about them battling back, “You guys can focus on that if you want to. That’s loserville, that’s what that is.”

Both camps are falling back on bromides — more aggressive, sense of urgency — to explain how each erected sizable leads over the other.

Their reasoning for those leads vanishing also sounds simplistic but carries a foundation of truth.

“It doesn’t matter how far you’re up,” Lynx center Sylvia Fowles said Thursday. “You have two scrappy teams that don’t give up.”

Though they have adopted different approaches to the national anthem, with the Sparks repairing to the locker room while the Lynx stay courtside with arms locked, there is little that separates them once the ball goes up. In the past 13 meetings, the Sparks have outscored Minnesota by a collective 12 points.

By displaying urgency and aggression from the get-go at Staples, the Sparks can reprise their 2016 title celebration after Game 4 on Sunday, which would not be at all weird. They tip off Friday with an 18-1 record at home this season — and likely with the first possession.

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