Chelsea Gray's buzzer-beater leads Sparks past Lynx in WNBA Finals rematch

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Los Angeles Sparks entered Target Center to start their WNBA season Sunday with one true post player, but a large amount of moxie and some of the toughest defenders the league has had. The Minnesota Lynx came into the game after a ring ceremony that had flashy lights and indoor pyrotechnics, with the defending champions joyously welcomed back by a sellout crowd of 13,032.

The set-up was perfect: the WNBA's premiere rivalry over the past two seasons being renewed on opening weekend. And the finish? It came down to a buzzer-beater -- what else did we expect?

"I just took it to the hole," said Sparks point guard Chelsea Gray, who drove for the winning layup in a 77-76 victory. "I think with having the backing of my coach and teammates, I have the confidence to take those shots. This was good, because it helps set the tone for the season."

The Lynx, of course, hope just the opposite -- that this game was an aberration, one in which they turned over the ball 24 times and lost despite a 41-25 rebounding edge. Coach Cheryl Reeve said before the game that she wanted her players to thoroughly enjoy getting their rings and the fan adoration before tipoff. She also expected the Lynx, veteran crew that they are, would be able to put the celebration aside as soon as it was time to play.

"Unfortunately, our effort and focus wasn't at the level it needed to be to win against a good team," Minnesota forward Maya Moore said. "I hate to say that, because those are controllable factors. It's frustrating, but we can bounce back from that."

The Lynx weren't as sharp throughout the game as we're used to. But remember the Sparks have played them the toughest defensively of any foe since Minnesota's elevation to a championship-caliber squad in 2011. That's a point of emphasis for Los Angeles since Brian Agler took over as coach in 2015, as is the Sparks' mental toughness and resolve.

Those were qualities that the Sparks were not known for during a stretch of time after Lisa Leslie retired in 2009. But it's who they are now, and all the Sparks deserved credit for that Sunday.

The Sparks didn't have center/forwards Candace Parker or Maria Vadeeva, the latter a Russian who was their top draft pick this year. Nor did they have center Jantel Lavender, who was the league's sixth player of the year in 2016.

Parker didn't make the trip from Los Angeles because of a back injury. There was some expected snark from Minnesota fans suggesting Parker -- who publicly complained about the schedule having the Sparks at Target Center when the Lynx were getting their rings -- just didn't want to come to Minneapolis because of that. But anyone aware of how ultra-competitive Parker is knows that's absurd; still, it's another glowing ember in the fire of this rivalry.

Agler said Parker's status is day-to-day. Lavender is one of several WNBA players in the Turkish League finals, her Yakin Dogu Universitesi team down 2-1 in the best-of-five series vs. Fenerbahce, with Game 4 on Monday. She'll return when that series is over. Agler said that Vadeeva's visa appointment is June 1, so she should be able to join the Sparks soon after that.

That meant 6-foot-2 Nneka Ogwumike, the 2016 league MVP, was the Sparks' only true post player Sunday. But she's also accustomed to going against the likes of Minnesota's 6-6 Sylvia Fowles, last season's MVP.

"Part of the game plan for me, personally, was not to get into foul trouble," said Ogwumike, who played a team-high 37 minutes, 30 seconds, and finished with 19 points and nine rebounds. "Not to say that I didn't want to be aggressive, but I wanted to be smart."

Then there are 5-11 Alana Beard and 6-foot Essence Carson as guard/forwards who are used to taking whatever defensive assignment that's needed.

Beard has long been a thorn in Moore's side, and that was the case again Sunday. Beard, the league's defensive player of the year last season, was the primary defender responsible for Moore's 4-of-14 shooting from the field. Moore was 1-of-6 when shooting against Beard.

"I definitely didn't have the feel that I wanted for most of the game," said Moore, who also looked uncharacteristically tentative at crunch time. "But there are more ways to help the team than scoring, so I try to focus on that. Definitely, I hope this will be the low point for me this season."

Carson also had 10 points along with her defense. She had to gut through elbow issues last season that forced her to miss 10 games and move to a bench role after starting throughout 2016. Carson said surgery after the season has helped a lot and she's feeling good.

"We're undersized right now, so you have to do everything in your power to help your team win," Carson said. "I'm willing to do whatever it takes; it doesn't matter what position I play. You can put me anywhere. It's just all about winning."

As Agler said, "When Essence came here, she provided our team with a mental and physical toughness. She's very serious, very business-like. She's got great focus."

Odyssey Sims, who took over as a starter for Carson midway through last season, had a game-high 21 points Sunday. Fellow guard Riquna Williams came off the bench to also aid with the Sparks' defense.

And Gray had 18 points and eight assists, capping it off with another buzzer-beating shot. She hit one in the opening game of last year's WNBA Finals at Williams Arena here in Minneapolis. Interestingly enough, the last time the Sparks and Lynx played at Target Center -- which was closed for renovations last summer -- was in 2016. That was Game 5 of the WNBA Finals, which the Sparks also won 77-76, the same score as Sunday.

Irritating, for sure, to Reeve and the Lynx, who were led by Lindsay Whalen's 17 points and nine assists, while Fowles and Rebekkah Brunson combined for 30 points and 21 rebounds.

But these teams will meet again three more times this season, so the Lynx will have their opportunities for revenge. That said, the Sparks at some point should be at full strength, and what they did in spite of that Sunday was impressive.

"One thing I've tried to instill in this team is to never make excuses," Agler said. "They all take pride in that now. We just go play."