Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier split the first two of their three epic heavyweight battles in the 1970s -- and the third fight, hyped by Ali and promoters as The Thrilla in Manila, exceeded all expectations and has taken its place among the great moments in 20th century sports.
WNBA fans probably won’t get quite that lucky when they sit down to watch the Los Angeles Sparks and Western Conference rival Phoenix Mercury take the court for the third and final game in this tied-up opening playoff round, but the heavyweight matchup analogies were thrown around nevertheless in the postgame presser in Phoenix after the Sparks pulled out a tough road win Saturday night to even the series.
“It’s like two old heavyweight fighters, slugging it out,” said Sparks' coach Carol Ross. “You’re looking for any weakness on every possession. You just have to keep punching until you find something.”
“It’s going to be the same thing Monday,” said Mercury coach Russ Pennell. “You’re going to have to cut hard, you’re going to have to move the ball quick if you want to score. Game three is going to be a heck of a battle.”
Asked about the punch-counterpunch aspect of the series so far, Pennell put it bluntly: “This is the time of year where you either produce or you’re going home.”
Both the Sparks and the Mercury have their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, especially on defense, but it’s been a long time since two teams with so much marquee talent have met head-to-head in the playoffs.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” Sparks center and 2013 WNBA MVP Candace Parker said in answering a reporter’s question about the greater meaning of the season-saving win to tie the series. “We’ve won one game. We won on their home floor and that’s great but it doesn’t get us into the next round. If we’re not starving for another victory then I don’t know what can motivate us.”
“This is why everybody loves sports,” said Parker’s counterpart on the Mercury and another two-time WNBA MVP, Diana Taurasi. DT thought her team came close Saturday night but didn’t quite have enough to close out L.A. and advance.
“Now we’re going to have to figure out a way to go back Monday to LA and get enough. Everyone is going to have to play a little better and a little harder and a little smarter.”