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First Round Playoff Preview: (6) Los Angeles Sparks vs. (7) Minnesota Lynx

Sparks vs. Lynx. Chapter Four.

The top rivalry in the WNBA today will write another Playoff chapter to a saga that has produced two of the best WNBA Finals in league history. Only this time, the teams won’t square off with the championship on the line, but rather in a first-round single-elimination game on Tuesday in Los Angeles (10:30 ET, ESPN2).

This is the fourth straight postseason that the Sparks and Lynx have met. In 2015 – in the final postseaon split between conferences – the Lynx defeated the Sparks 2-1 in the opening round in the Western Conference en route to their third WNBA title.

In each of the past two seasons – under the new playoff format – the Lynx and Sparks have finished 1-2 in the standings, thus earning byes to the semifinals, before eventually meeting in the WNBA Finals. In 2016, the Sparks stunned the Lynx on their home floor with a Game 5 victory courtesy of a Nneka Ogwumike game-winner with 3.1 seconds left to win the title for the first time in 14 years.

A year later, the teams faced a similar predicament – a winner-take-all Game 5 in Minnesota for the championship. After watching the Sparks celebrate the year before, the Lynx got their revenge behind a huge game from MVP Sylvia Fowles and a clutch jumper by Maya Moore to thwart a late Sparks run. The Lynx captured their fourth title to join the Houston Comets for the most in league history, while also preventing the Sparks from being the first team to win back-to-back titles since 2002.

As the Lynx look for title No. 5, they face a much tougher road than they have in the past. Both teams are experiencing the do-or-die opening two rounds of the playoffs for the first time, and for the Lynx they will have to win two road games before having a chance to host a playoff game in the semifinals.

Considering this is a one-game series between these rivals, it should be noted that the Sparks won Game 1 in each of the past two WNBA Finals. And did so in dramatic fashion. In 2016, Chelsea Gray found Alana Beard in the corner for a game-winning jumper at the buzzer. A year later, Gray called her own number. After the Sparks squandered a 26-point lead and saw the Lynx go up one with 6.5 seconds to play, Gray delivered a game-winning jumper with two seconds left.

Regular Season Series

May 20 at Minnesota
Sparks 77, Lynx 76

It didn’t take long for the rivalry to renew as the Sparks and Lynx opened the season in Minnesota. After watching the Lynx receive their championship rings for beating them last October, the Sparks spoiled the party thanks to another clutch shot from Gray, who hit a double-clutch, off-balance shot in the lane at the buzzer to give the Sparks the win.

June 3 at Los Angeles
Sparks 77, Lynx 69

After winning the first game of the season series without Candace Parker, who was nursing a back injury, the Sparks leaned on their two-time MVP this time around. Parker finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds as the Sparks earned the win and handed Minnesota its fourth straight loss – their longest losing streak since dropping five straight in 2010.

July 5 at Minnesota
Lynx 83, Sparks 72

In addition to picking up their first win of the season over the Sparks, the Lynx saw veteran forward Rebekkah Brunson make history in front of the home fans as she became the WNBA’s all-time leading rebounder. She grabbed 12 boards to pass both Lisa Leslie and Tamika Catchings on her way to the top of the list. She added 15 rebounds for her 82nd career double-double in the Lynx win.

Stats Spotlight

Scoring

To say these two teams are evenly matched would be quite the understatement. This season, the Lynx have scored 2,684 total points, which is exactly one more than the Sparks at 2,683. Both teams enter the playoffs averaging 78.9 points per game, the lowest mark for any team in the postseason.

Defense

Of course, its not all about offense. While the Lynx and Sparks are not the highest-scoring teams, they are the stingiest on defense. L.A allows a league-low 77.0 points per game, while the Lynx are next at 78.3 points per game by their opponents.

Rebounding

When looking for separation, the first place to look is the boards. The Lynx dominated the glass during last year’s Finals, with Sylvia Fowles breaking the single-game record for rebounds twice in the five-game series, including 20 in the championship clincher. On the final day of the regular season, Fowles set a new WNBA record for rebounds in a season with 404.

As a team, the Lynx rank sixth in rebounding at 35.3 per game, while the Sparks are last in the league at 31.3 per game.

Turnovers

While the Lynx may have the edge on the boards, the Sparks have the edge in turnovers as they lead the league in steals (7.9 per game) while also committing the fewest turnovers on offense (12.1 per game).

Matchup To Watch

Candace Parker vs. Sylvia Fowles

There are matchups all over the floor that demand to be watched. Whether its reigning Defensive Player of the Year Alana Beard guarding three-time All-Star MVP Maya Moore, or the veteran Lynx backcourt of Lindsay Whalen, Tanisha Wright and Seimone Augustus going against the young Sparks backcourt of Chelsea Gray and Odyssey Sims.

But the focus has to go to the frontline and a pair of MVP candidates: Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles (the reigning league and Finals MVP) and L.A.’s Candace Parker (a two-time league MVP and 2016 Finals MVP).

Fowles dominates in the paint (17.7 points, league-leading 11.9 rebounds and 61.9% shooting) while Parker’s versatility shines all over the court (17.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 34.5% 3-point shooting).

One question that we don’t know heading into Tuesday’s game is how often Fowles and Parker will be matched up with one another. That’s because we don’t know the status of their frontline partners Nneka Ogwumike and Rebekkah Brunson. Ogwumike missed the regular season finale against Connecticut due to illness, which is something that forced her to miss three games and the All-Star Game earlier this year. Brunson has not played since Aug. 5 when she suffered a concussion against Atlanta.

The availability of Ogwumike and Brunson is huge for this matchup. Not only do both teams need to be at full strength to combat the other, but in the case of L.A., it gives the Sparks another defender to throw at Fowles along with Jantel Lavender. Fowles is known to put opponents in foul trouble as they try to slow her down. If the Sparks frontline is shorthanded, that will only make things more difficult for Parker to navigate.