Memories of Ogwumike’s 2016 game winner linger ahead of Game 1

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There’s a photo of that split second before Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike launched the shot that won the 2016 WNBA title. She’s falling backward, the ball balanced in her right palm, her eyes on the rim.

If she misses, there are four Lynx players in the paint to get the rebound. The only Sparks player there, Candace Parker, has been boxed out. Alana Beard, Chelsea Gray and Essence Carson are all beyond the 3-point line.

For all practical purposes, this is the moment that defines the season for both teams.

Ogwumike didn’t miss.

Her shot gave Los Angeles a 77-76 Game 5 victory. Now she and the Sparks return to Minneapolis for Sunday’s Game 1 (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET) of the 2017 WNBA Finals.

Ogwumike is not living in the past. It was a wonderful “signature” moment last October for the Sparks: the MVP of the league making the clutch basket that won the championship. But now the Sparks and the Lynx are battling in another best-of-five series.

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“Both teams are very system-oriented teams,” Ogwumike said. “We both understand really well what works for us and what the other does.

“I think it will be interesting to see the game plans on both sides, and those adjustments that we have to make as the series goes on. Because last year, every game, it was something different. It called for people to do different things.”

That fits with what Ogwumike has done throughout this season. It’s not to say she hasn’t been pretty similar to the player she was last year. But like all great players who are still evolving, she’s figuring out how many ways she can impact games.

Last year, her efficiency was astonishing, as she shot 66.5 percent from the field in the regular season and 62.5 during the playoffs. This year, she was at 56.1 for the regular season and shot 56.7 in the Sparks’ semifinal sweep of Phoenix.

What her numbers reflect, though, is that she’s drawing a huge amount of defensive attention. Foes are doing whatever they can to bottle her up, but it hasn’t hurt the Sparks; just like last year, they went 26-8 and finished second in the league. And they are playing their best basketball at the right time: Los Angeles has won 10 games in a row.

“I don’t want to ever allow that to hinder me or make me not be confident in what I can do out there,” Ogwumike said of when defenses key on her. “But sometimes, it means I have to get looks in different ways. Or I might be able to help open up looks for other people.

“I know if I run the floor, congestion will follow me, and maybe that will open things up for [our guards]. I have to stay active, I can’t think, ‘Oh, if I’m not getting shots, that’s the end of it.’ That can’t ever be the end of it, and it shouldn’t be for anybody.”

But Minnesota’s focus was on Gray, who launched a contested turnaround fadeaway shot from the left side, just below the free throw line. If the Lynx were going to give up a shot, this wasn’t a bad one for them to allow, except …

There was Ogwumike, in perfect position and unimpeded, for the offensive rebound. She grabbed the rebound from the right side of the basket, her momentum carrying her over to the left side. Her putback was blocked by Fowles, but the ball ended up right back in Ogwumike’s hands.

Then there’s Ogwumike, falling backward, with one more opportunity.

Like everything in real time, it happened so quickly there was no chance to contemplate how much was riding on it, or how difficult a shot it was. There was only a player who’d had a magical season she’d worked so hard to achieve, putting one last spectacular bow on the whole thing with 3.1 seconds left.

Later, as disappointed as she was, Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve would say it was about Ogwumike doing “a very Nneka-like thing,” which is to say putting herself in the right position, and then not giving up on the play.

The Lynx still had a chance for a half-court heave by Whalen, but when that hit the backboard and the horn sounded, Ogwumike and the Sparks could celebrate.

“You always have to keep looking on the bright side, and that’s something I’m really good at doing,” Ogwumike said in the jubilant Sparks locker room afterward that night. “People think I’m a little too optimistic, but I don’t care. This is why you do it. You have to visualize things before they happen.”

Ogwumike barely paused, though, after winning the 2016 title. She was busy, busy, busy — taking over as president of the players’ union’s executive committee, playing for Dynamo Kursk overseas in Russia, posing for ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue, being a spokeswoman for causes she believes in.

This season, she averaged a team-high 18.8 points and also 7.7 rebounds. She feels like she continues to learn all the time.

While this series won’t be at Target Center like last year — the Lynx’s home for these WNBA Finals is the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena — the memories of last year will be lingering before Game 1 begins. At least for the fans.

Then, it’s a whole new chapter, and Ogwumike is ready for that.

“It’s huge to be playing them again,” she said of the Lynx. “The conversation about these two teams hasn’t stopped since the beginning of last season, through the WNBA Finals, and into the beginning of this season. And all the way until now.

“I think it’s a great representation of the progress of our league. It allows people to reminisce about rivalries that have existed before, and also give them something to relate to now, in terms of a modern rivalry between two elite teams.”

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