Last year, in the first test of the WNBA’s new playoff format, the league’s two best teams, the Minnesota Lynx and the Los Angeles Sparks, met in the finals.
The Sparks were led by a former MVP, surrounded by a mix wily veterans and newcomers seeking their first taste of WNBA gold, while the Lynx boasted their own former MVP and a balanced offense, anchored by strong post-play.
So far, it feels déjà vu all over again.
The WNBA’s two best teams, the Lynx and the Sparks, are again meeting in the WNBA Finals, only this time, it’s the Sparks who are defending their crown, while the Lynx try to rebound from their heartbreaking defeat from a year ago.
The Sparks come into the Finals playing some of their best basketball of the season, having now won 11 straight. Candace Parker has led the team in points, rebounds and assists during the playoffs and, as crazy as it is to say for someone who’s been Rookie of the Year, Regular Season MVP and Finals MVP and who is a perennial All-Star, she’s probably playing the best basketball of her career.
The team lost their three point-specialist during the off-season when Kristi Toliver left the Sparks to join Elena Delle Donne and the Washington Mystics, but Chelsea Gray — the Duke alum responsible for this year’s Game One winner — and newcomer, Odyssey Sims, have stepped up their offensive contributions. Gray finished Game One with a career high, 27 points.
But, if Game One is a harbinger of things to come, Sparks fans have to be concerned about the team’s consistency. The team shocked everyone by jumping to a 28-2 lead, but after that, the Sparks were outscored, 82-57 over the remaining 32 minutes of play. Part of that can be attributed to foul trouble — Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Alana Beard all picked up a slew of fouls early which limited their minutes and aggressiveness — but that loss of focus has also been a disconcerting hallmark of the Sparks’ season. Against a weaker team, the Sparks could overcome those momentary lapses and overpower their opponents with their explosive offense, but that’s not going to happen with the Lynx. Minnesota will make them pay every time.
One big adjustment that I’ll be looking for in Game Two: first, the Lynx seemed to do best on Sunday when they went to a smaller line-up and, if they do that again tonight, how will the Sparks respond? Does Brian Agler, the Sparks’ Head Coach, let the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Alana Beard, trail Maya Moore or does he let the two best players on the floor — Moore and Parker —go head-to-head?
The Lynx came into the playoffs a bit of a question mark. The team had gone without their floor general, Lindsay Whalen, for the last 12 games of the regular season and the Lynx didn’t look like the cohesive unit that’s made this team a perennial title contender for the last seven years. They were prone to offensive slumps and were uncharacteristically sloppy with the basketball. Their easy sweep of Washington in the semi-finals abated some of my concerns, but when the Finals tipped on Sunday and the Sparks ran out to a quick 9-0 lead, the doubts start to creeping back in.
And when the Sparks push their lead to 18, I started to worry.
But then, with 2:48 left in the first quarter, the league’s regular season MVP, Sylvia Fowles, sent Parker’s shot right into the sideline seats, and my concern started to lift. The Lynx, the team that’s been here for six out of the last seven years, the team going for their fourth championship (matching the success of the Houston Comets), had arrived and there was no need to panic.
Fowles has been stellar for the Lynx all season and Sunday was no exception. Once she started getting touches, she was able to score with relative ease, finishing with 22 points on 10-15 shooting. Seimone Augustus is coming off one of the worst seasons of her career but she’s found her shot in these playoffs, averaging 19 points per game. But it was Moore that provided the real spark for the Lynx, applying pressure on both ends of the court.
The big question coming out of Game One for the Lynx is how they’ll manage their offense. Rebekkah Brunson had an abysmal Game One and the Lynx will need her presence in the post if they plan to contend in the series. Clearly, the game plan was for Brunson to drift outside the post, pulling her defender (Parker) away from a potential double-team of Fowles, but it didn’t work. Parker didn’t respect Brunson’s jump shot — rightfully so — and was able to float around, helping on Fowles and Moore as needed.
If the Lynx opt for the small line-up that brought them such success in the first game what do they do about Gray? I’m also concerned about how the Lynx keep up with the seemingly indefatigable Sims. Gray was able to easily get her shot by posting up the smaller Jia Perkins, while Odyssey Sims often blew right past her defender to score easy buckets at the rim.
As she is wont to do, Minnesota Head Coach Cheryl Reeve tore into her team yesterday for their disappointing start to Game One. I cannot fathom how the Lynx allow a team to beat them at the buzzer — not once, not twice but three times now, including for the championship — and don’t come out of the locker room for Game Two with a lot of fire.
Tonight we’ll see if the defending champs can claim a decisive advantage in the series or if it’s just another case of history repeating. If it’s the latter, and this year’s WNBA Finals can even come close to matching the excitement of last year, basketball fans are in for a real treat.
In light of the heated NFL debate about kneeling during the national anthem, much has been written about the longstanding activism of players in the WNBA. For further reading, check out SB Nation’s “The WNBA Has Been at the Forefront of Protesting Racial Injustice” and Bitch magazine’s “All Of The Work, None Of The Credit: Don’t Drop The Ball On The WNBA’s Activism.”