The Los Angeles Sparks didn't get the exact moment they were hoping for last year. What they got instead was something a bit more improbable -- and ultimately just as satisfying.
The Sparks had the chance to close out their 2016 WNBA Finals series with Minnesota on a Sunday at home in Staples Center before almost 13,000 fans. Fourteen years had passed since the franchise won its last title, and it seemed like the perfect way for the team's story to end.
But the game got away 85-79 and the title appeared to slip from the Sparks' grasp. The odds shifted toward the Lynx, who were going back home where their green-clad fans would fill Target Center for Game 5.
Except that's not how coach Brian Agler and the Sparks saw it.
As we count down to the opening of the 2017 WNBA season Saturday -- the Sparks host Seattle (ESPN/WatchESPN, 5 p.m. ET) -- it's hard not to look back at how 2016 ended. It had been a celebratory summer and fall as the WNBA marked its 20th season, and the WNBA Finals turned out as exciting and unpredictable as the league could have hoped.
The Sparks prevailed 77-76 in Game 5 because they did what they had been doing all season: staying in the moment, not getting caught up in emotion, relying on each other. Agler stressed each of those things after the Game 4 loss, and the Sparks committed to them.
Los Angeles had developed a reputation as a team that too often beat itself. That changed last year, and Game 5 was the ultimate proof.
"Seasons are never the same. ... Even with a lot of the same people, your team changes. Other teams change. So I don't think about it as 'repeating.' You just try to focus on winning this season."Sparks coach Brian Agler on his expectations for 2017
Nneka Ogwumike rebounded Chelsea Gray's miss, but then Sylvia Fowles blocked her shot. Ogwumike wasn't done, though; she got the ball back, and her second attempt with 3.1 seconds left went in, giving the Sparks the lead. Out of timeouts, the Lynx had to get the ball downcourt quickly for a heave at the buzzer, but it hit the backboard.
The Sparks won the title -- in front of stunned fans instead of cheering ones -- and reversed the nagging narrative of not being able to win the biggest games. Candace Parker, after nine seasons and two league MVPs, added the only things that had been missing from her vast basketball résumé: WNBA champion, WNBA Finals MVP. Neither she nor Ogwumike, the regular-season MVP, were on the U.S. Olympic team. But they were the WNBA's best for 2016.
Throughout the postgame celebrations, Agler wore a contented smile, much like a dad watching his kids open their Christmas presents. He'd won three pro titles before -- two with Columbus in the American Basketball League and one with Seattle in the WNBA -- and had come to Los Angeles because he thought he could help the Sparks win it all.
It took Alana Beard's buzzer-beater in Game 1 in Minneapolis, a near perfectly executed Game 3 at the University of Southern California's Galen Center, and a resilient battle that went to the wire in Minneapolis in Game 5 for the Sparks to be champions again.
So what now?
"Seasons are never the same," Agler said. "When you win a championship, you think back on the things you were fortunate that went your way. Whether it's health, hitting big shots or how the schedule played out.
"Even with a lot of the same people, your team changes. Other teams change. So I don't think about it as 'repeating.' You just try to focus on winning this season."
Agler has been in this situation before. After his Columbus Quest won the first ABL title in the 1996-97 season, he says the team didn't get off to a great start in 1997-98, having lost standout Nikki McCray to the debuting WNBA. But a trade for a player named Traci Thirdgill, a Washington grad known for her heart and hustle, seemed to help Columbus regain a more gritty and hungry attitude.
"It wasn't like she played big minutes, but the minutes she gave us were so energized," Agler said. "We kind of caught fire."
The Quest won the championship again in 1998, but the league folded the next season.
In 2010 with Seattle, Agler won a WNBA title. But that was the last healthy season for Storm star Lauren Jackson, who was the league MVP in 2010. Seattle was 21-13 in 2011, falling to Phoenix in the Western Conference semifinals.
Right now, health doesn't seem to be an issue for Agler's Sparks the way it was for his Storm. What about complacency?
"It happens in every profession, not just sports," he said. "You can loosen up, not keep your focus like you had it. You're not quite as hungry. You let up a little bit, and it's the toughest thing to fight against. ...
"To eliminate it from happening, it's got to be about an internal hunger within the individuals who want to achieve another tough goal."
The Sparks are still awaiting the arrival of many of their players from overseas commitments, but Los Angeles should have most of the standouts -- Ogwumike, Parker, Beard, Gray, Jantel Lavender and Essence Carson -- who were key last season.
Kristi Toliver, who left as a free agent to Washington, is the biggest change in personnel. Last season, she averaged 13.2 points and 3.7 assists and was one of the WNBA's best 3-point shooters (81-of-191, 42.4 percent).
Agler thought Toliver had one of the best seasons of her career and knows she is difficult to replace. The Sparks acquired Odyssey Sims in a trade with Dallas, and also have fellow guard Riquna Williams healthy. Los Angeles got Williams in a trade before the 2016 season, but an Achilles tendon injury sidelined her.
"We may have to do some things in a different manner," Agler said. "Our team played well last year. But I also realize, 'How would we be feeling now if Nneka doesn't hit that shot in Game 5? Or if Alana doesn't make that shot in Game 1?'
"We ended up winning the championship, but it was so close. We don't think of ourselves as better than everybody else. Reality is this league is extremely competitive, and a lot of factors play into success. You have to have great talent, which we feel really good about. But other teams have talent, too. You have to catch some breaks and have that mentality that every day is important."
Ogwumike averaged 19.7 points and 9.1 rebounds to lead the Sparks last year. Parker averaged 15.3 points and 7.4 rebounds, plus a team-best 4.9 assists. They worked very well as a tandem, and the rest of the Sparks just clicked around them, especially in the playoffs.
The Sparks proved something to themselves and the rest of the league in 2016. The franchise is the last in the WNBA to repeat. Los Angeles did it in 2001-02 during the Lisa Leslie era. That's what this group is aiming for, and Agler doesn't doubt the motors of his returning players.
"But I also know they're human beings," he said. "So that's why we're going to keep our goals and our focus really narrow. There was a lot of movement in the offseason with other teams. People are talking about who might be championship contenders.
"I want to focus on having good practices, and then just prepare for each opponent. That's how we did it last year, and it's how you put yourself in good position at the end."