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Video breakdown: WNBA Finals Game 1

Los Angeles Sparks' Alana Beard, left, Los Angeles Sparks' Candace Parker, center, and Los Angeles Sparks' Nneka Ogwumike, right, during second half of a WNBA basketball game, Friday, July 15, 2016, in Uncasville, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
(AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

While many in the sports world were watching preseason NBA, Week 5 of the NFL, and the MLB playoffs, the Los Angeles Sparks visited the Minnesota Lynx in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals.

The WNBA changed their playoff format this year, reseeding the top eight teams regardless of conference. The move worked as planned, as the top two teams in the league, both from the Western Conference, qualified for the Finals.

Game 1 did not disappoint. The game was tight the whole way, as the teams were within five points through its entirety. Tied at 76, Alana Beard sank a buzzer-beater to give the Sparks the 78-76 win:

The Lynx played excellent defense on the initial pick and roll, but Maya Moore decided to help on the Chelsea Gray drive, and left Beard alone in the corner.

It was a great play call from Sparks coach Brian Agler, as Rebekkah Brunson is stuck defending Parker under the hoop and can’t help on the drive. This forces Moore to either help or stay at home and give Gray a shot at the rim as she beats Seimone Augustus. Moore chooses the former, as Gray had been effective attacking the basket and getting to the line, and Beard had been quiet offensively. It didn’t work out.

Sylvia Fowles and Lindsay Whalen are completely occupied by the off-ball action, where you see Nneka Ogwumike setting a down screen for Kristi Toliver, the Sparks’ best three-point shooter. It was this decoy action that put Moore in such a precarious situation.

Aside from the game-winner, the Sparks started the game with energy and a smart gameplan. Here’s a look at what the Sparks were able to do early:

Backdoor Cuts

The Lynx play an aggressive man-to-man defense. The Sparks got off to a hot start by cutting backdoor as a counter to the press coverage:

This is classic read and react. Fowles steps over the read line (three-point line), initiating an automatic backdoor cut by Ogwumike. Toliver delivers the perfect bounce pass, and Ogwumike finishes the play over the defensive player of the year. These backdoor cuts were available all game, and the Sparks took advantage.

Sparks Doubling Aggressively

The Sparks also play an aggressive man-to-man defense. The Lynx have offensive threats at all five positions, and the Sparks can’t afford to give up any space. Their wrinkle is to trap the pick-and-roll and double along the baseline:

Here, you have Augustus working one-on-one on the baseline. As Augustus makes her move, Candace Parker comes over from the post to double Augustus, gets the block, and initiates the break.

Here’s an example of the Sparks’ pick-and-roll coverage:

As Renee Montgomery and Brunson run high pick and roll, Toliver and Ogwumike double, forcing Montgomery to pass to the diving Brunson. While Brunson converts an impressive turnaround jumper, the rotation was spot on by Jantel Lavender. The Sparks forced the Lynx into tough, contested two’s all afternoon, holding them to 76 points, well below their season average of 85.8 points per game.

Adjustments by the Lynx

The Lynx responded in the second half, taking control of the game for much of the third and fourth quarters.

Attacking the Double Team

Here, the Sparks double Whalen, and you see Jia Perkins release to the corner for the jumper:

Help Defense

The Lynx packed the paint more in the second half, playing help defense rather than denying every pass. The Sparks were just 3-for-12 from three-point range Sunday, so expect the Lynx to continue to play off the Sparks moving forward.

While Ogwumike drives through traffic for the finish here, notice the positioning of the Lynx defenders:

If the Lynx protect the rim for four quarters and force the Sparks to shoot from the outside, the Sparks will struggle to generate offense.

Going to Maya Moore

Moore passed Diana Taurasi for all-time scoring in WNBA Finals history. After going scoreless in the first half, she imposed her will in the second half.

Matchups to Watch

Lindsay Whalen vs. Alana Beard

Lindsay Whalen scored 18 points Sunday. She beat defensive specialist Alana Beard one-on-one multiple times, keeping the Lynx in the game early when the Sparks were out-playing Minnesota. With all the attention on Moore, the Sparks will need to figure out how to defend Whalen more effectively.

Here, Beard wins the battle, blocking Whalen in a crucial play down the stretch. This battle will be key throughout the series.

Candace Parker vs. Sylvia Fowles

Parker matched up with Fowles for much of the afternoon. During the regular season, it was Ogwumike who drew Fowles. While both players played well — Fowles finished with 18 points and 13 rebounds, while Parker had 14 points and nine rebounds (including eight offensive boards) — the Lynx should consider keeping Brunson on Parker and putting Fowles on Ogwumike.

Parker’s ability to play on the perimeter brings Fowles away from the basket, and opens up the lane for the Sparks. It’s also leaves Fowles vulnerable guarding Parker so far from the basket.

What other professional basketball player, NBA included, plays center, pushes the ball up the floor, and has this type of shooting range?

It was a great start to the WNBA Finals, as the Game 1 steal by the Sparks puts all the pressure on the defending champions to even the series before it shifts to Los Angeles. The Lynx shouldn’t have 11 first-half turnovers and a scoreless half from Moore again, but they have their hands full with the Sparks.

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