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2017 WNBA Finals Preview: (1) Minnesota Lynx vs. (2) Los Angeles Sparks

The. Rematch. Is. On.

For just the second time in WNBA history, there will be a Finals rematch as the Los Angeles Sparks look to defend their title against the Minnesota Lynx in the best-of-five series, which tips off Sunday, Sept. 24 on ABC.

For the second straight season, the Lynx (27-7) and Sparks (26-8) separated themselves from the rest of the WNBA, finishing with the top two records in the league with a four-game lead over the next-best team.

“I think its great for the WNBA, the two best teams facing off, that’s the way it should be,” Candace Parker told ESPN’s Rebecca Lobo on the Finals rematch following L.A.’s sweep of the Phoenix Mercury in the Semifinals on Sunday. It was L.A.’s 10th straight win going back to the regular season – the longest win streak of any team heading into the WNBA Finals.

Earlier in the day, the Lynx also completed a Semifinal sweep as they defeated the Washington Mystics 81-70 to advance to the Finals for the sixth time in the past seven seasons.

Series Schedule
Game 1: Sunday, Sept. 24 — Los Angeles @ Minnesota, 3:30 PM ET, ABC
Game 2: Tuesday, Sept. 26 — Los Angeles @ Minnesota, 8 PM ET, ESPN2
Game 3: Friday, Sept. 29 — Minnesota @ Los Angeles, 9 PM ET, ESPN2
Game 4*: Sunday, Oct. 1 — Minnesota @ Los Angeles, 8:30 PM ET, ESPN
Game 5*: Wednesday, Oct. 4 — Los Angeles @ Minnesota, 8 PM ET, ESPN
*if necessary

When the Finals opens, it will have been 340 days since the decisive Game 5 of last year’s championship series – an instant classic that capped off what is widely regarded as the greatest WNBA Finals in the 20-year history of the league.

The final moments of Game 5 included three lead changes in the final 20 seconds as the teams traded the lead with each made bucket. The final basket of the season came in dramatic fashion as Nneka Ogwumike grabbed an offensive rebound off a Chelsea Gray miss with five seconds left, put up a shot that was blocked by Sylvia Fowles, caught the ball off the deflection and put up a second shot as she was falling away from the basket.

Ogwumike made the second attempt to put the Sparks up 77-76 with 3.1 seconds to play. With no timeouts remaining, the Lynx’s final hope was a Lindsay Whalen half-court heave that hit the backboard, but missed, and ignited the Sparks’ championship celebration on Minnesota’s home court.

Relive the last 25 seconds of last year’s WNBA Finals.

Now the Lynx finally get their shot at redemption.

Just like last year, the Lynx finished the best overall record in the league and thus hold home-court advantage in these Finals as they will host the first two games of the series and – if needed – another decisive Game 5.

The Lynx are back in the Finals and will look to keep their win-the-title-every-other-year tradition alive. Since 2011, the Lynx have won the WNBA championship in every odd year – 2011, 2013 and 2015. Winning the 2017 title would keep that trend alive and also tie them with the Houston Comets for the most championships in WNBA history.

The Sparks also have a shot at Houston’s mark as their franchise won titles back-to-back in 2001 and 2002 before finally get back to the top of the league in 2016. The Sparks will also try to become the first team since those Lisa Leslie-led Sparks to successfully defend the WNBA title – something that hasn’t been done in 15 years.

Star Power

This matchup features four of the last five winners of the WNBA Most Valuable Players award – Parker (2013, her second win), Moore (2014), Ogwumike (2016) and Fowles (2017). Those four players also account for the top two scorers from each team – all ranking in the top 11 in the WNBA this season.

Leading Scorer
Sylvia Fowles: 18.9 PPG (5th)
Nneka Ogwumike: 18.8 (6th)

Second-Leading Scorer
Maya Moore: 17.3 (10th)
Candace Parker: 16.9 (11th)

Fowles and Ogwumike have received MVP honors, but with two talented rosters the awards extend beyond the MVPs. The group also includes the last two winners of the Defensive Player of the Year award – Fowles (2016, her third win) and Alana Beard (2017, her first win). There are also four former Rookie of the Year winners – Seimone Augustus (2006), Parker (2008), Moore (2011) and Ogwumike (2012).

New Blood, New Roles

While most of the players that step onto the court on Sunday played in last year’s Finals, there are some new faces that will contribute on both teams.

The most notable change is L.A.’s loss of last year’s starting point guard Kristi Toliver, who left the team in free agency. After a strong showing in last year’s playoffs, the Sparks elevated Chelsea Gray from the bench to the starting role. The result was a runner up finish for Most Improved Player as Gray increased her scoring by nearly nine points per game and doubled her assists per game from a year ago.

The Sparks also acquired Odyssey Sims in an offseason trade with Dallas to help fill the void in the backcourt. After averaging 9.6 points during the regular season, Sims was L.A.’s second-leading scorer in their Semifinal series with Phoenix, averaging 18.3 points per game, including a team-high 22 in the clinching game.

After starting Toliver, Beard and Essence Carson in the backcourt last year, the Sparks now go with Gray, Sims and Beard to complement the frontcourt of Parker and Ogwumike.

The Lynx did not have to make such adjustments to their starting lineup as their core five remain the same from a year ago. But while the lineup didn’t change, some of the roles certainly did.

After last year’s Finals, Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve spoke with center Sylvia Fowles about becoming a greater focal point of the Minnesota offense. Fowles, who joined the team in 2015 as the final piece of their league domination, had been a second or third option behind Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus since joining the team.

But not this year. Fowles’ shot attempts jumped from 9.0 to 11.4 per game – second only to Moore – and her efficiency jumped to levels rarely seen in WNBA history. Fowles’s 65.5 percent shooting is the fourth-best mark ever and helped increase her scoring from 13.9 to 18.9 points per game. Add that to her 10.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game and it resulted in Fowles winning her first MVP award in her 10th WNBA season.

Season Series

The Lynx had to wait nearly two months into the regular season before they got their first matchup with the Sparks following that crushing Game 5 defeat last October.

July 6 at Minnesota

Minnesota Lynx 88, Los Angeles Sparks 77

When the two teams met on July 6 in Minnesota, the Lynx pounced on the Sparks with a 25-14 opening quarter and built a 19-point first half lead that L.A. was never able to overcome. Minnesota got 20 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks from Fowles and 20 points, four assists and three steals from Renee Montgomery off the bench as she single-handedly outscored the Sparks’ subs 20-17 on the night.

L.A. got 27 points, 14 rebound and three steals from Ogwumike as well as 16 points from Gray. However, Parker was held to a season-low two points (one of only two single-digit scoring games on the season) as she shot just 1-6 from the field.

Aug 11 at Minnesota

Los Angeles Sparks 70, Minnesota Lynx 64

The final two regular season matchups took place in mid-to-late August and both came with Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen sidelined with a broken bone in her hand. Minnesota opened the season 20-2 with Whalen running the show, but went 4-5 in the first nine games that she was sidelined. Both of these matchups with the Sparks took place during that nine-game stretch.

In the second meeting of the season, the Sparks got big games from Gray (23 points, three assists, three rebounds), Parker (19 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, two blocks and Sims (14 points, five assists) to lead them to a 70-64 win.

After the Lynx pulled within three points with under 50 seconds to play, Ogwumike made her only basket of the game – a baseline jumper with 28 seconds left – to seal the win for the Sparks. Ogwumike finished with only three points on 1-8 shooting, but did have eight rebounds and four assists.

Minnesota got another double-double from Fowles (17 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks) as well as 36 combined points from Brunson (14), Moore (12) and Montgomery (10) with the latter filling in for the injured Whalen in the starting lineup.

Aug 27 at Los Angeles

Los Angeles Sparks 78, Minnesota Lynx 67

Two weeks later, the teams met in Los Angeles for their final regular season meeting as the Sparks were threatening the Lynx for the top record in the league. Behind a 24-point, 10-rebound double-double from Parker as well as 16 points and five assists from Gray and 12 points from Sims, the Sparks took down the Lynx 78-67 to win the season series with their nemesis.

Ogwumike finished with just eight points for the Sparks as she was limited to 24 minutes due to foul trouble. Ogwumike had just two single-digit scoring outputs all season long and both came against the Lynx.

Minnesota got 17 points and 14 rebounds from Fowles – giving her a double-double in each of the three contests with L.A. – but it was not enough as Moore (10 points), Augustus (nine points) and the rest of the Lynx struggled to score. The Lynx were held under 70 points just five times all season – two of those came against the Sparks while Whalen was sidelined.

That win pulled L.A. within a half-game of catching the Lynx for the top record in the league with a week remaining in the regular season. However, the Lynx were able to right the ship and closed the year with three straight wins to hold off the Sparks and earn the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

Tale of the Tape

The Lynx and Sparks dominated the rest of the WNBA throughout the season, finishing with a combined record of 53-15 (.779) and outscoring teams by 14.2 and 10.5 points per 100 possession during the regular season. No other team had a net rating greater than 5.3.

Category Lynx (Rk) Sparks (Rk)
OffRtg 108.3 (1) 106.5 (2)
DefRtg 94.1 (1) 96.0 (2)
NetRtg 14.2 (1) 10.5 (2)
TS% 56.3 (3) 56.4 (2)
FTA Rt 0.272 (9) 0.273 (8)
AST/TO 1.45 (1) 1.40 (4)
REB% 53.8 (2) 49.6 (7)
BLK% 7.9 (T-6) 7.9 (T-6)

 

These are two evenly matched teams no matter which statistical comparison employed. The two largest discrepancies come in rebounds (advantage Lynx) and turnovers (advantage Sparks).

At this point the only number that matters to the Sparks and Lynx is the number three. That is how many wins stand between them and the WNBA title.

Will it be the Sparks going back-to-back or the Lynx cementing their dynasty with their fourth title in seven years? And will it be another five-game classic series that rivals last year’s battle for supremacy?

The rematch tips off on Sunday.