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

The new playoff format did exactly what it was supposed to do: produce a WNBA Finals between the two best teams in the league even if both teams hail from the same conference.

The Minnesota Lynx (28-6) and Los Angeles Sparks (26-8) were head and shoulders above the rest of the WNBA this season, with a combined 54-14 (.794) record, and now meet in a best-of-five series to determine the 2016 champion.

GameTime: WNBA Finals Preview

A year ago these two teams would have met in the Western Conference Finals in a best-of-three series with the winner being the overwhelming favorite to go on and win the championship. In four of the last six seasons, the winner of the Western Conference went on to sweep the Finals in three games.

Now these two powerhouses get to square off for the ultimate prize against a worthy competitor.

Regular Season Series

The Lynx and Sparks combined to lose just five home games all season long, but when it came to playing each other, it was the road team that found success in all three meetings.

June 21 at Los Angeles: Lynx 72, Sparks 69

The first matchup between these two team made history as it was the first meeting in an American professional sports league, including the NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL, that featured two teams with at least 10 wins and zero losses or ties.

Both teams – Minnesota at 12-0 and L.A. at 11-0 – had already surpassed the WNBA record for the best start in league history – the 2012 Lynx held that record by winning their first 10 games before suffering a loss.

The epic clash, tabbed the Battle of the Unbeatens, lived up to the hype, with the game tied in the closing seconds before Renee Montgomery knocked down a corner trey with 2.9 seconds to play to lift the Lynx to a 72-69 win and a 13-0 start to the season.

All-Access: Lynx Edge Sparks in Battle of Unbeatens

June 24 at Minnesota: Sparks 94, Lynx 76

The Sparks didn’t have to wait long to avenge the loss – three days to be exact – as the teams met in the second half of a home-and-home set back in Minnesota.

This game didn’t come down to a final shot as the Sparks took down the Lynx 94-76 to not only snap Minnesota’s record start at 13-0, but also began a three-game losing streak for the Lynx, which propelled L.A. to the top of the standings.

Los Angeles used this win over the Lynx as a springboard to their own piece of WNBA history, as it was the start of a nine-game winning streak that helped L.A. match the 1998 Houston Comets for the best start in league history through 21 games (20-1).

Sparks 94, Lynx 76

Sept 6 at Los Angeles: Lynx 77, Sparks 74

The final regular season showdown between these two teams came after the Olympic break and was the second game of the season series decided by just three points.

With Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles leading the way – the duo combined to score Minnesota’s first 18 points of the fourth quarter – the Lynx built what appeared to be a comfortable 12-point lead with under two minutes to play, before the Sparks went on an improbable run in the final 64 seconds led by reserve guard Chelsea Gray, whose 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds to play pulled L.A. within two points.

However, the Lynx (25-5) held on for the win, which helped them leap over the Sparks (24-6) in the standings and secure home-court advantage in the Finals.

Game Recap: Lynx 77, Sparks 74

Star Watch

It’s almost easier to name the non-superstars in this matchup than highlight the stars as both teams are loaded with incredible and award-winning talent. A quick glance at the WNBA postseason awards pretty much tells you all you need to know.

The All-WNBA teams have yet to be announced, but it is sure to be stacked with players from these two juggernauts. And this list doesn’t even include a pair of former MVPs – L.A.’s Candace Parker (2008 and 2013) and Minnesota’s Maya Moore (2014) – and another former Coach of the Year on the L.A. bench (Brian Agler).

Each team has three former No. 1 overall draft picks – Ogwumike (2012), Parker (2008) and Ann Wauters (2000) for the Sparks; and Moore (2011), Seimone Augustus (2006) and Janel McCarville (2005) for the Lynx – with only Wauters and McCarville not winning Rookie of the Year honors.

Stats Spotlight

Among the plethora of statistics that can be highlighted to break down this matchup, the first to examine is experience. This is Minnesota’s fifth trip to the WNBA Finals in the past six seasons with the core of Lindsay Whalen, Augustus, Moore and Reeve there for every one of them.

On the other hand, this is Los Angeles’ first trip to the WNBA Finals in 14 years. The last Sparks team to reach the Finals was headlined by Lisa Leslie, Tamecka Dixon, Mwadi Mabika, DeLisha Milton-Jones and rookie Nikki Teasley, who made the championship-winning 3-pointer. All of those players have since retired with Milton-Jones recently announcing the end of her playing career after playing in more games than any player in WNBA history.

Before Tuesday’s win over Chicago to send the Sparks to the Finals, Parker held the record for the most playoff games played without a Finals appearance at 28. The Sparks were mere seconds away from a Finals berth in her rookie season in 2008 before a Sophia Young prayer was answered to keep San Antonio alive in the West Finals, with the Silver Stars eliminating the Sparks in Game 3.

It’s not like the Sparks don’t have players with championship experience – it just hasn’t come in the WNBA. Both teams feature players that have won NCAA titles and appeared in Final Fours while in college and represented their country in Olympic competition, with the Lynx representing a third of Team USA in Rio this summer. Two players that were not named to that team – Parker and Ogwumike – definitely left many confused over their omission and provided more focus and determination for the dynamic duo headed into the WNBA season.

When it comes to breaking down the numbers from the season, it’s difficult to find a statistic that does not have either the Sparks or the Lynx at the top of the list.

Efficiency

Stat Lynx (Rank) Sparks (Rank)
Offensive Rating 107.2 (1) 106.6 (3)
Defensive Rating 96.4 (1) 97.3 (2)
Net Rating 10.9 (1) 9.3 (2)

 

The Sparks led the efficiency ratings for much of the year, but their edge started to dwindle as the team struggled in the final games leading into and coming out of the Olympic break. While the Lynx led the league with a 7-2 record after the month-long hiatus, the Sparks went just 5-5 to close the regular season.

Shooting

Stat Lynx (Rank) Sparks (Rank)
Field Goal Pct 47.1 (2) 48.7 (1)
3-Point Pct 33.7 (7) 37.5 (1)
Free Throw Pct 80.6 (5) 79.1 (9)
Effective FG Pct 50.0 (4) 53.3 (1)
True Shooting Pct 55.1 (4) 57.4 (1)

 

Even with those late season losses, the Sparks maintained the hold on the top shooting percentages in the league. It helps to have the super-efficient Ogwumike challenging the single-season record for field goal percentage – she fell just 0.3 percent short of breaking Tamika Raymond’s 66.8% record.

Offense Per Game

Stat Lynx (Rank) Sparks (Rank)
Points 85.8 (2) 83.0 (4)
Rebounds 35.8 (3) 31.5 (10)
Offensive Rebounds 9.7 (6) 6.7 (12)
Assists 20.0 (2) 20.4 (1)
Turnovers 13.5 (3) 13.6 (4)

 

The teams are nearly identical in assists – they are the only two teams to average at least 20 assists this season – as well as turnovers with both teams taking great care of the ball despite high passing numbers.

The rebounding numbers look a bit alarming for the Sparks, but keep in mind that their offensive rebounding opportunities were limited since they shot such a high percentage. When looking at rebound percentage, the Sparks rank seventh in the league at 49.3 percent, which is better but still does not match Minnesota’s league-leading 53.8 percent. Interestingly, the Sparks frontline duo of Ogwumike (9.1) and Parker (7.4) combine for slightly more rebounds than Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles (8.5) and Rebekkah Brunson (7.3), with all four players ranking in the top 10.

Defense Per Game

Stat Lynx (Rank) Sparks (Rank)
Points Allowed 77.0 (2) 75.9 (1)
Steals 8.2 (3) 8.0 (4)
Blocks 4.6 (5) 3.8 (6)

 

There is very little separation between the teams in these stats just as there is little separation between these two teams overall. This is not a matchup of one dominant team taking on an overwhelmed opponent. This is a matchup of the two most dominant teams this league has seen in years.

And thanks to a new playoff format, these two teams get to clash five times over the next two weeks to give each other the ultimate test and WNBA fans the ultimate treat.