Sparks show that it's not how you start, it's how you finish
The Sparks walked into Staples Center on Friday night facing the Minnesota Lynx in their final home game of the regular season with playoffs on the line. A win would mean a trip to the post-season; a loss would meant a very uphill battle that would required a lot of help from other teams' losses to make it.
Everything we worked for all season was riding on 40 minutes of basketball. Who knew this game would end up mirroring our season?
We had already beaten Minnesota three times this season, but the last one had been a come-from-behind, Tina Thompson-buzzer-beating affair that we knew Minnesota was looking to avenge. Tonight was do-or-die for them as well. They needed a win to ensure their playoff position.
The first 30 minutes of the game left the outcome in doubt, as the teams battled for a substantial lead, but neither could really pull away. The last quarter was all Sparks, as we celebrated a must-win, with a season-high 98 points against the Lynx's 90. The Sparks are going to the playoffs!
It's been a tough regular season. We started the season with a new coach, in Jen Gillom, and a new point guard, Ticha Penicheiro. We won our first game, but not many more than that. Just as I felt we were starting to gel as a team, we were playing the Minnesota Lynx back in June, and Candace Parker dislocated her shoulder and was gone for the season. As quickly as that, we were almost back to square one. Our record was a somewhat dismal 3-7, and although we beat Minnesota in that game, we went on to lose our next four in a row. I think every Sparks fan has heard or recited the familiar homily: It's not how you start; it's how you finish. We said it, and we believed it, and we recited it to everyone.
One might have been forgiven if, when met with the adversity this group has met, and when facing a 6-16 record for the season in the middle of July, that phrase started to seem somewhat hollow. But I knew this team had the talent to make the post-season, and our fans knew it, too. We suffered a pretty serious loss against Indiana during a long road trip in July, and that seemed to be a catalyst for the team to bond and achieve. After that loss, we won six of our next 10 games, and then it all came down to Friday night. We were in a three-way tie with Minnesota and San Antonio for the final playoff spot with two games left in the regular season.
We did not start Friday's game particularly strong. By the end of the first quarter, we were trailing Minnesota by five, and that five points would remain Minnesota's lead throughout the first three quarters of the game. It hadn't occurred to me that it was possible for us to lose to Minnesota, but I must admit that as the third quarter wound down and we were losing by that same five points, I suddenly felt vulnerable. But the last quarter of the game was just like the last quarter of the Sparks season. No one in purple and gold, on the court or in the stands, was ready to go home yet.
We had shot terribly all game. Our defense wasn't bad: we had five steals, and the Lynx had committed 12 turnovers by the end of the third quarter. We were also dominating the offensive glass -- something no Sparks fan is used to seeing this season -- as we offensively outrebounded the Lynx 10-4. But we had shot only a cumulative 40% by the end of the third quarter, compared with the Lynx's 58%, and we needed to get some points. Thompson was doing her part, shooting 50% from the field and scoring 21 points by the end of the third, but Noelle Quinn had only five and Kristi Toliver had three.
Then it was the fourth quarter, and time to see how we finished. We were down by the same five points we seemed to be down by all game long. The first three minutes, we traded baskets again and finally, with 6:16 left in the game, Thompson scored her 25th and 26th points in the game, on a made basket and free throw to take the lead. From there, the Sparks never looked back. Quinn, who had made only two baskets all night, suddenly caught fire, scoring back-to-back three pointers. Toliver found her stroke, going four for four in the final period, including two from outside the arc. DeLisha Milton-Jones, who was five of 14 through the third quarter, went a perfect four of four in the fourth, plus a pair from the free-throw line. All in all, the Sparks shot 85.7% in the fourth quarter, including 80% from the three-point line, and it was just too much for Minnesota. We left with a win and a guaranteed spot in the post-season.
We have one more game in the regular season, tomorrow in Seattle, and then it's playoff time. We could still hold the third seed, but are guaranteed no lower than the fourth. It doesn't matter who we play in the first round of the playoffs next week because, like the regular season and like this final home game, it's not how we start that matters. It's how we finish.
-- Katherine Goodman