MINNEAPOLIS -- Los Angeles Sparks coach Brian Agler made an analogy earlier this season, reminding his team to rely on his navigation. Think of me as Waze, he told them, referencing the traffic app.
But his point guard, Chelsea Gray -- who hit the winning shot Sunday for Los Angeles in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals -- is probably better than anyone on the team at loosening him up with humor.
"There was a game this season where she wanted to go with a different play than Brian, and he was just looking at her," Sparks guard Alana Beard said. "And Chelsea says, 'OK, you're Waze, but I'm Google Maps. Trust me.'
"There's something about her maturity you don't always see in people her age. On top of her being a great player, she's a great leader."
In Sunday's opening game of the Finals that went from blowout to barn burner, Gray led the Sparks in the right direction: an 85-84 victory. Even if they didn't exactly take the most direct route to get there.
It looked like they would, after getting out to a 28-2 lead in a surreal (nightmarish, for the Lynx) first quarter. But Minnesota came all the way back to take an 84-83 with 6.5 seconds left.
Gray at this point had 25 points, tying her career high. She then broke it with 2 seconds left, taking an inbounds pass from Candace Parker, dribbling to the left side of the free throw line, and hitting a pull-up jumper. Minnesota then had a turnover, and the Sparks had a 1-0 series lead.
"We had the timeout, and I think we needed that to set up," Gray said of her game winner. "And I just knocked it down.
"I think all athletes dream of that moment, you know, especially at this stage. Last year it was Alana, and then it was Nneka [Ogwumike]. I'm glad it went in."
She was referring to the Sparks' two last-second victories in the WNBA Finals last year in Minnesota. Beard hit a jump shot on an assist from Gray in Game 1, and Ogwumike made the shot that won the championship in Game 5, after she had rebounded a Gray miss.
Gray is just 24 -- she'll be 25 next month -- and playing her third season in the WNBA. She had a tough ending to her college career at Duke, suffering knee injuries that cut short both her junior and senior seasons. She was picked No. 11 in the 2014 WNBA draft by Connecticut, and sat out that season recovering.
She played one year for the Sun, then was traded to the Sparks before last season. Los Angeles gave up center Jonquel Jones to get Gray, but the deal has worked out for both teams. The Sparks needed a point guard who could score and distribute at a high level. Gray has done that.
Beard, a Duke grad who is 10 years older, reached out to Gray when she was still in college, passing on encouragement. Beard missed two WNBA seasons with ankle injuries, so she understood what Gray was going through.
"I had seen her play, and I had a belief in her talent," Beard said. "Stuff like that is just something you have to get through. And she's gotten through it."
In fact, Gray says now, "It created a mental toughness. Everything happens for a reason, and I'm better for it. When I got hurt in back-to-back years, I didn't know if I would ever be at this point. It was about perseverance."
Gray's performance was critical Sunday, because the Lynx almost pulled off the biggest rally in WNBA Finals history.
"Gray made some really good plays," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. "Some of the things we were trying to get done, we got done. And she still would make a play."
Reeve acknowledged that on Gray's last shot, where she was guarded by Seimone Augustus with Maya Moore coming in to help, the Lynx just weren't able to close in tight enough on her.
But that's because it's hard to crowd Gray. She's nimble enough to give herself space. Like Gray, Sparks guard Odyssey Sims also is a tough player for the Lynx to stop because of her quickness.
"Let's not forget Odyssey and what she did this game," Parker said of Sims, who finished with 16 points and five assists. "She was unbelievable, defensively picking up the ball as well as running in transition. It was a collective effort, then Chels down the stretch really brought us home."
Parker got called for her fourth foul with just over a minute left in the second quarter, which she said impacted her in the second half, especially on defense. Still, she finished with 15 points, 12 rebounds and four assists.
The Lynx went with a smaller lineup and were able to keep creeping back into the game. When they tied the score for the first time, 78-78, with 2:10 left on Moore's layup after she stole a pass from Gray, Williams Arena was a madhouse.
Gray, though, stayed calm. It's one of the things she has learned to do: not get rattled despite the pressure of the game.
"I have sort of watched this develop over the course of two years now," Agler said of Gray's rapid growth while with the Sparks. "Chelsea made some very, very big plays throughout the course of the game."
After the game, though, Gray talked about her mistakes, an indication of how mature she has become even so young.
"I tried to stay poised, but I had too many turnovers," said Gray, who had five giveaways to six assists. "I've gotta be smart about that going into Game 2."
But the fact that the Sparks will enter that game Tuesday with the upper hand was thanks largely to Gray. The opener might not have gone exactly as the Sparks would have mapped it out. But in the biggest moment Sunday, Gray had the answer.