WNBA Finals primer: How do Lynx, Sparks match up?
— -- The last time the Los Angeles Sparks were in the WNBA Finals, the Minnesota Lynx were a gritty underdog that tried to stop them. That was 2003, when the Sparks were two-time defending champions and the closest thing to WNBA villains.
They weren't really all that villainous, but they had superstar Lisa Leslie, a tough defense, and a swagger that then-coach Michael Cooper loved.
The Lynx were in the playoffs for the first time under then-coach Suzie McConnell-Serio. Katie Smith starred for Minnesota, and longtime USA Basketball great Teresa Edwards was playing in the first of her two WNBA seasons at age 39.
The teams met in the conference semifinals, and the Lynx put a little scare into the Sparks before losing the series 2-1. Los Angeles went on to lose to Detroit in the WNBA Finals.
No one would have guessed then that it would be 13 years before we would see the Sparks in the season-ending series again. Similarly, Minnesota's playoff appearance that year -- and again in 2004 -- were good signs for the franchise, but not indicative of an eventual dynasty.
In fact, the Lynx missed the postseason every year from 2005-10 as five coaches rotated through. The fifth one, though, stuck: That was Cheryl Reeve, who got her start as an assistant and is now coach of the top franchise in the WNBA. Starting in 2011, the Lynx have reached the WNBA Finals in five of six years, with three titles.
The Sparks, who have had eight coaches since 2004, some in more than one stint, have made it back to the WNBA Finals under Brian Agler, who is with his third team in the league. He led Seattle to the championship in 2010 and actually started back in 1999 with ... the Lynx.
So it feels like a few things are coming full circle with these WNBA Finals.
This is the first year for the WNBA playoff format in which conference affiliation did not matter; the top eight teams advanced to the postseason. That was particularly advantageous for the Sparks, who were eliminated two of the past four years from the playoffs by the Lynx.
Minnesota, which had a 2-1 series edge this season over Los Angeles, is the favorite.
That's no guarantee, of course. As the favorite in recent years, Minnesota has lost in the WNBA Finals (2012) and also been pushed to five games before prevailing (2015). Indiana was the opponent both times, and although the Fever didn't have quite the star power that the Sparks do, they had one great player in Tamika Catchings and a cast that played very well around her.
At this point, there's nothing the Lynx or Sparks can throw at the other that is unknown. Despite there being no surprise factor, there's still a lot of strategizing that will go on between two head coaches who know what it takes to win a championship.
We look at four areas that could be key as the Lynx and Sparks compete for the 20th WNBA title.
Defense! Defense! Defense!
Yeah, boring old defense. Who wants to focus on that? We want to watch Maya Moore float to the basket, Lindsay Whalen's shake-and-bake in the lane, and Seimone Augustus' soothingly smooth jumper for the Lynx. Plus, Kristi Toliver making rainbow 3-pointers, Nneka Ogwumike outjumping everyone and then spinning around for the layup, and Candace Parker going coast-to-coast for the Sparks.
All that will happen, but the series probably will be decided by which team defends the best. And these two teams can make defense pretty exciting.
The Lynx have the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year in center Sylvia Fowles, who allows them to take more chances than they would if she weren't there protecting the rim.
Some of the Lynx players have slowed down, but Reeve and her staff have figured out how to compensate for that. It helps that the oldest player on the team, gritty forward Rebekkah Brunson, is still going strong a couple of months from turning 35. She can take care of her assignment and help elsewhere. The same can be said at the guard spot for Jia Perkins and Renee Montgomery, who come off the bench.
Like Brunson and Perkins, Los Angeles guard Alana Beard is also 34 but still a defensive whiz who doesn't seem to have lost a step. Beard's hallmark always has been defense, and the same goes for teammate Essence Carson.
Ogwumike has become an excellent and versatile defensive player, and Toliver has made strides on defense, too. If there has been a knock on Parker, as fantastic a player as she is, it's that she sometimes conserves energy on defense or doesn't make it back to defend when she's upset about a call on the offensive end. But considering it's the WNBA Finals, we can expect she'll be at her best defensively, too.
These happen even between teams that aren't similar in talent. But they can be a huge factor when both teams are this good.
In the three regular-season meetings between the Lynx and the Sparks, Minnesota won two close games, the first and the third. Los Angeles won the second game after it grabbed momentum in the fourth quarter, outscoring Minnesota by 12 points in that period, and prevailed by 18.
Based on what we saw in the semifinals, momentum seems to be a bigger concern for the Sparks. They had two third-quarter lapses against Chicago; one cost them in a loss, and they rallied back from the other.
The Lynx have won two of their championships in sweeps (against Atlanta in 2011 and '13) and have had very few big lapses in their WNBA Finals appearances, with one exception: In Game 3 in 2012, which seemed to come out of a parallel universe, Minnesota was blown off the court by Indiana, which went on to win the title in Game 4.
Last year in the Lynx-Fever series, three of the first four games were decided by six points each, and the other by Moore's buzzer-beating 3-pointer. By the fifth game, the Lynx had worn out the Fever, winning by 17.
The "trade that worked surprisingly well" factor
There are so many standout, veteran players in this series. However, the Lynx and Sparks also have youngsters who were obtained in trades before this season that have paid off.
In February, the Lynx dealt for forward Natasha Howard, the No. 5 pick in the 2014 draft by Indiana, because Devereaux Peters wished to leave. Reeve has acknowledged that Minnesota, while aware of Howard's potential, wasn't expecting she'd make as strong a showing as she has.
One of the best games of her career came Sunday, when she had 17 points, eight rebounds and three assists against Phoenix. Howard also has been an effective defensive cog.
The Sparks made a trade in March for a scoring guard, obtaining Riquna Williams from Dallas. But Williams was injured and missed the season. Then Los Angeles made another trade in April, this time with Connecticut for point guard Chelsea Gray.
Like Howard, Gray was picked in the 2014 draft, at No. 11. Gray's college career at Duke was very good but marred by injuries, which extended into her missing the 2014 WNBA season. When healthy, she's an outstanding point guard, and that's something the Sparks needed. Gray had one of her best performances of the season against the Lynx, scoring 20 points on Sept. 6 and making that game close at the end.
Plus, as part of the deal for Gray, the Sparks got the Sun's 2017 first-round selection, which turned out to be a lottery pick. Los Angeles will have the No. 4 spot in the 2017 draft.
Who will be the MVP of MVPs?
Minnesota's Moore just keeps getting better and can legitimately lay claim to being the best women's player in the world right now -- even if she wasn't the 2016 WNBA MVP.
Moore, at 27, has set a standard so high that even when she has MVP numbers, there's a tendency to take her for granted. You could say the same thing happened a lot with one of her predecessors at UConn, Phoenix's Diana Taurasi.
Moore came to the Lynx in 2011 as a great scorer, and she has improved every other aspect of the game. Her playmaking ability, in particular, is something to watch, because she has really taken advantage of having a powerful center in Fowles.
Ogwumike won the MVP award this year, and even big fans of Moore and New York's Tina Charles couldn't complain too much about that. The buzzword for Ogwumike for this season was her efficiency; she shot 66.5 percent from the field in the regular season and is at 60 percent in the Sparks' four postseason games.
As mentioned, Ogwumike has become very valuable on the defensive end as well, because she can guard virtually anybody, which is like gold in Agler's team-defense system.
Moore and Ogwumike were back-to-back No. 1 draft picks, in 2011 and 2012, and they had great college careers at UConn and Stanford, respectively. They're also classy, intelligent, thoughtful people, the kind of ambassadors the WNBA is especially thrilled to have.
Which one will have the better WNBA Finals performance? It's likely they'll both be outstanding, and it will be all the other factors we've talked about -- and some we probably haven't -- that will make the difference.
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