LOS ANGELES -- For a lot of years, the Los Angeles Sparks couldn't quite solve their backcourt equation. They won back-to-back WNBA titles in 2001-02, lost in the WNBA Finals in 2003, and then didn't return to the championship series until last year.
In the 13-year gap between Finals appearances, the Sparks had good talent, including at guard. But the exact right combination on the perimeter seemed to elude them, and that cost Los Angeles a chance to compete for a championship more than once. Now, though, the Sparks seem to have found it in consecutive years. That, combined with two exceptionally talented posts in Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, has the Sparks on the verge of another repeat.
Los Angeles won Game 3 75-64 over Minnesota at Staples Center on Friday to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series. And like last year, the Sparks have a chance to close out the title at home on a Sunday.
They weren't able to do that in 2016; the Sparks fell in Game 4 but then won the championship in Minnesota with a Game 5 victory. But on Sunday (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET), they will have another chance for a celebration at Staples, thanks in large part to terrific play on the perimeter.
The starting backcourt of Chelsea Gray and Odyssey Sims outscored Lynx starting guards Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus 30-0 on Friday. That's somewhat deceiving because Minnesota got important guard help off the bench: Renee Montgomery, Jia Perkins and Alexis Jones -- a rookie who hadn't appeared previously in the Finals -- combined for 23 points.
But considering how important getting off to a first-quarter lead has been in this rivalry, the fact that the Lynx starters struggled so much was a big factor. Another starter, forward Maya Moore, didn't score in the first half as she was saddled with foul trouble. She finished with a team-high 16 points before fouling out.
"Our starters didn't compete in the way that we had hoped that we would to start the game," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. "L.A. set the tone on those guys, and we just couldn't get responses from them."
Sims tied Ogwumike with 16 points to lead the Sparks, and Gray had 14 points and seven assists. Add in guard/forward Alana Beard's strong defense, and the Sparks' perimeter was a force that hurt the Lynx.
"I feel like we need to go back and watch video and see areas we probably could have attacked more and taken care of the ball better," Whalen said. "Little things are big things at this point in the season, so it gets magnified. It was definitely not the start we wanted."
Center Sylvia Fowles had 15 points and 11 rebounds; she was the only Lynx starter besides Moore to score in double figures.
"I think our defense held its own for most of the game, but our offense was rushed," Fowles said. "I don't know why we get to that point where we feel like we have to rush."
Could Sims and Gray, two speedy guards, have something to do with forcing the Lynx to do that?
"Yeah, that's what L.A. did to us throughout the season -- try to speed our guards up because they feed off the turnovers," Fowles acknowledged. "We've got to be able to handle that pressure. The first two games, we did."
Last year, the Lynx started Kristi Toliver and Essence Carson, along with Beard, on the perimeter. Gray came off the bench in her first season with Los Angeles, having been obtained in a trade with Connecticut before the season began. Beard said back then that Gray was on her way to being the best point guard in the WNBA. And this season, Gray has made strides toward that. She was named to the All-WNBA second team Friday, and was an All-Star earlier this year.
Gray is able to use her court vision, her passing wizardry, her shooting skills and her size and strength at 5 feet, 11 inches to flummox defenses. Asked if she would take a charge against Gray in practice, teammate Candace Parker said, "Absolutely not. I might have to run a line drill for that one."
Pair Gray with the 5-8 Sims, and you've got two guards who can light up the scoreboard as well as make plays for others and defend. Toliver left as a free agent to play for Washington, and Carson dealt with injuries that cost her 10 games this season. That bumped Sims, who had been obtained via trade from Dallas, into the Sparks' starting lineup.
Sims has steadily improved as this season has progressed, in terms of knowing what the Sparks want from her. She proved while in Tulsa/Dallas she could be a scorer at the pro level, but in Los Angeles she's becoming an all-around player.
"She's grown so much," Ogwumike said of Sims. "I think with a player like her who has been so successful and has been on teams that have seen a little bit of a rocky kind of season, she just needed a team like us. For us to really bring the best out of her. But when she brings the best out of herself, it's unbelievable."
Beard, 35, has watched the growth of both Gray, who will be 25 in October, and Sims, who turned 25 in July. Beard was a big-time scorer her first six seasons in the WNBA, with Washington. Since coming to Los Angeles in 2012, Beard has been a defensive specialist who picks her spots on offense, and also is the perfect example to follow for younger players about focusing on team needs.
She and Carson have been the voice of experience for the younger guards, but Beard gives them credit for how much they've matured.
"I was very happy with how Odyssey and Chelsea came out," Beard said. "Odyssey did a great job of pressuring the ball, and when she's doing that, we're at our best defensively. Then you have Chelsea, who is locking in more defensively.
"Odyssey impresses me every single day, just from how she walks into the locker room and talks to everybody. We can trust her to do her job, even though she's probably the one with the least experience. She's been very open to listening to us and doing what we need her to do."
Said Gray: "I love playing with Odyssey, because she's been very aggressive and is one heck of a defender. When she is in the open court, she's deadly. And I think our youth is a key component in the way we play, and the fun we have. I think it's OK to have a little 'flavor' in the locker room and on the court."
And it has brought the Sparks to the verge of being able to almost taste another championship. They know the Lynx will put up a fight, just as they did in climbing back in the fourth quarter on Friday.
But if the Sparks' guards can continue to dictate pace, they are going to make it tough for Minnesota to force a Game 5.
"We just have to stay in the moment," Gray said. "If you look at it big picture, I think that's when you lose focus. That's what we did last year, and it's an experience we have to take into account this year."