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The rise of Nneka Ogwumike led to the LA Sparks’ first title in more than a decade

How did the Sparks go from out of the playoffs to the championship? The difference was the improvement of the WNBA MVP.

The Los Angeles Sparks beat the Minnesota Lynx, 77-76, to win the WNBA championship on Thursday night, taking the series 3-2 to finish a dominant season that nobody saw coming. It’s only fitting that MVP Nneka Ogwumike hit the game-winning bucket with two seconds remaining.

This wasn’t supposed to be the Sparks’ season. It was supposed to be the Phoenix Mercury’s comeback year with Diana Taurasi returning to the league. Or the Lynx’s chance to win back-to-back titles. In a preseason poll, 75 percent of general managers chose one of those teams to win the title.

But L.A. was able to surprise everyone behind the rise of their 2012 No. 1 pick, Nneka Ogwumike, who closed out the Finals with 12 points and 12 rebounds. She was the dominant second option L.A. needed all season long to pair with its longtime star, Candace Parker, to take down Minnesota’s four Olympians.

In the regular season, Ogwumike was dominant. Winning her first MVP award, the 6’2 forward posted the second-highest field goal percentage in league history at 67 percent. She set a WNBA record in the process, making 23 straight field goals across three games in July.

Her efficiency gave her one of the best seasons in basketball history. Ogwumike finished with the fourth-highest season win share total in league history at 9.47. That was good for more than four times the league average at .435 win shares per 48 minutes. She played on a whole other level.

Ogwumike also set career highs in points with 20 and rebounds with nine, both the third-best averages in the league. She tallied three assists, a block, and a steal per game and shot 87 percent at the free throw line to go along with it. Her prowess isn’t only on one side of the ball either.

Though Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve may think she’s the biggest flopper in the league, she was also honored with a first-team defensive selection.

It was a perplexing rise only on paper for the Sparks. In 2015 they were the last team into the playoffs. But that was only because Parker sat out the first half of 2015 to rest after playing a year of non-stop basketball in the WNBA and Russia. In her absence, L.A. went 3-13, losing its first seven straight, plummeting to one of the worst teams in the league.

When Parker returned, the team found some success, closing out the season 11-7 to clinch the final playoff seed in the West. After Parker’s return, Ogwumike’s efficiency began to rise as well, averaging 16 points per game on 62 percent shooting. But they were forced to play the No. 1 Lynx in the opening round, and Ogwumike and Parker hadn’t yet found the chemistry they have today.

The two played just 10 regular season games together after Ogwumike missed six of the 16 Parker played in with ankle injuries. Their record didn’t represent their play, but forcing the Lynx into a third game in a best-of-three series showed where a full year could lead them.

When they finally played a complete season under coach Brian Agler, the guard-like forwards surfaced into the most explosive one-two punch in the league. Playing high-low ball, two of the league’s best passing bigs were able to find each other backdoor using their speed to zip to the basket, knowing the other would have the ball placed perfectly ahead. Backdoor cuts tantalized the Lynx’s elite defense in Game 1, and gave some issues again in Game 4.

Ogwumike built her game off moving without the ball, but also has success on the block. She’s stronger than ever, able to battle in the post and finish through contact — a big reason why her shooting numbers are up. On the boards she’s been physical as well, making her a complete second option alongside Parker.

Equipped with one of the game’s best three-point shooters in Kristi Toliver, best perimeter defenders in Alana Beard, and stretch shooters Essence Carson and Jantel Lavender, L.A. finally had all the pieces. With everyone healthy, the Sparks grew their No. 1 picks to feed off each other to win the franchise’s first title in 13 years and beat a Minnesota Lynx dynasty.

This isn’t the end for L.A. either. At 26 years old, Ogwumike hasn’t even yet hit her peak. With Minnesota’s MVP Maya Moore just a year older, the Lynx and Sparks could be a rivalry for years to come.