Jim Souhan
See more of the story

The Lynx traded for Sylvia Fowles on July 27. The deal paid off at about 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 22.

With impassioned play from Lindsay Whalen and Devereaux Peters, the Lynx had taken several large leads against the L.A. Sparks in the decisive game of the Western Conference WNBA semifinals.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Sparks cut the lead to one. At that point, Fowles had made her presence felt mostly by taking the ball out of bounds after allowing an easy inside basket.

Fowles is and always has been a powerful defensive player. For much of Game 3, she seemed disconnected from the proceedings.

That changed once the Sparks threatened in the fourth. Fowles scored nine of her 13 points from that point on, while belatedly asserting herself on defense. And for just long enough, she countered the offensive dominance of Los Angeles' Candace Parker to help the Lynx to a 91-80 victory at Target Center.

The last time the Lynx won a WNBA title, they traded for a post player who became integral to their success, as Janel McCarville became a deft passer out of the high post. Fowles is McCarville's opposite. She is a powerful low-post player and intimidating defender, at least when she's at her best.

Unlike McCarville, the offense will not run through her, and at times it might succeed in spite of her. But at her best she can give the Lynx superior rebounding and defensive play, and she was at her best in the fourth quarter.

"She's shown it at times for us," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. "I think with Sylvia, you've got to remember, when she first got here, it was new. And now in the playoffs, it's new again. I think she wants to try to figure things out, wants to feel good, wants to help. I thought she, today...she got really determined, and made hustle plays."

The Lynx's most emotional moment might have arrived when, with 41.7 seconds remaining, the Lynx, with Fowles on the court, forced a five-second call on an out-of-bounds play. That play had nothing to do with skills and schemes. That was maximum effort from five defenders working together, the essence of team basketball.

Fowles did not match up well with Los Angeles' versatile post players, but she might be a key to the Lynx's title hopes the rest of the playoffs.

Fowles is a three-time WNBA All-Star. Twice she has been named the league's defensive player of the year. She joined the Lynx's Big Three — Seimone Augustus, Whalen and Maya Moore — on the United States Olympic team in London in 2012.

She did not play like an all-world performer for three quarters.

"She struggled in the first half," Augustus said. "She struggled a little bit in the second half, in the third period and a little bit in the fourth. That's part of our leadership, to keep encouraging her, for her to get in the paint and keep getting her boards, and that paid off in the fourth quarter."

Parker called Moore, Whalen, Augustus and Fowles "their big four," and said she was happy with how the Sparks curbed their shooting and scoring.

Augustus said of Fowles' late emergence: "I think she needed that. She had been in a rut this series. I'm thankful that she did finally get going."

With the Lynx leading 87-80 with less than a minute remaining, Fowles sealed the victory with a forceful block near the basket. On the subsequent possession, she grabbed a rebound and drew a foul.

She made both free throws, leaving her with a fine finishing line: 13 points, 3-for-6 shooting, 7-for-8 free throws, six rebounds and one assist.

Fowles didn't have to be All-World on Tuesday. In the fourth quarter, the Lynx merely needed her to be all-in.

Jim Souhan's podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. jsouhan@startribune.com