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New Playoff Format Culminates in Game 5 Showdown

Minutes after her team staved off elimination with a hard-fought Game 4 victory in Los Angeles, Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve walked into the press conference room and delivered a simple but important message to the reporters gathered before her.

“My opening comment would be just commending both teams. This is what a Finals game should look like, I think — both teams leaving it all out on the floor. I was pleased to see that on both sides,” she said.

A year ago, Minnesota’s 85-79 win would not have happened. There would not have been a Finals Game 4, or even Finals Games 1-3, between the top two teams in the Western Conference.

Instead, the Western Conference Finals would have been decided in three games with the winner moving on to face the winner of the East in the Finals.

Thanks to a new playoff format that removes conference affiliation and seeds the field strictly by record, this Finals features the two teams that have stood head and shoulders above the rest of the league all season long.

And after four games in an incredible competitive series, the Finals are headed to a decisive Game 5 on Thursday night in Minnesota. It is the perfect culmination in the first year of the new system.

First, the top two teams reached the Finals, which has been a rarity in WNBA history. And second, the teams are so evenly matched that it is taking the full five games to determine a champion.

Top Plays Through First 4 Games Of WNBA Finals

“There is this mindset of wanting to get to the top teams playing as long as they can,” Reeve said prior to Game 4. “If anything, you want to see the Finals extended, especially right now.”

Considering that five of the last eight WNBA Finals ended in sweeps, extending the series beyond a best-of-five – which began back in 2005 – would never have been a topic of conversation. But when you have the Lynx (28-6) and the Sparks (26-8) posting the highest combined winning percentage (.794) in Finals history, you want to see as many games as possible between these two powerhouses.

Highest Combined Win Percentage, WNBA Finals
Year West/Team 1 Record East/Team 2 Record Combined Record
2016* Minnesota 28-6 (.824) Los Angeles 26-8 (.765) 54-14 (.794)
1998* Houston 27-3 (.900) Phoenix 19-11 (.633) 46-14 (.767)
2005 Sacramento 25-9 (.735) Connecticut 26-8 (.765) 51-17 (.750)
2000 Houston 27-5 (.844) New York 20-12 (.562) 47-17 (.734)

(Note: *Finals matchups between two teams from Western Conference; the WNBA did not factor in conference affiliations during playoffs in its first two seasons)

This is the first time that both teams in the Finals won at least 75 percent of their games during the regular season. There have only been two other Finals – 2005 between Sacramento and Connecticut, and 2003 between Los Angeles (.706) and Detroit (.735) – in which both teams had won at least 70 percent of their games.

Since the start of this decade, the disparity in records between the Finals participants has been glaring, with the Western Conference champion averaging 7.7 more wins than the Eastern Conference representative from 2010-15.

During that stretch, the top seed in the West made it to the Finals every year, while the top seed in the East was always knocked out. In those six Finals, the Nos. 2, 3, and 4 seeds represented the East two times apiece, but never the No. 1 seed. The result was five titles in six years for the West with four of them coming in three-game sweeps.

“In some of the other Finals that we’ve played in, whether we won or lost, there was a glaring difference in the teams statistically,” said Reeve. “But I think this year, you have a case where these were the two best teams. You’re seeing awfully good players that are really committed to their schemes both offensively and defensively.

“So from that standpoint it’s different. The quality of the opponent once you get to the Finals is always really good, but in this case, I think everyone in the league will tell you these two were the cream of the crop.”

The WNBA now has its top two teams meeting on the grandest stage possible, as opposed to years past where the best-of-three Western Conference Finals was the more competitive series.

“Most of the West Finals we played felt like the overall Finals,” said Seimone Augustus, whose Lynx played in the Western Conference Finals for five consecutive years beginning in 2011.

This was never more true than back in 2014, when the 25-9 Lynx met the 29-5 Phoenix Mercury in the West Finals. No other team even reached 20 wins that season, while these teams combined to go 54-14 – the same combined record as this year’s Finalists.

The top-seeded Mercury would defeat the Lynx in three games to advance to the Finals, where they swept the 15-19 Chicago Sky in three games.

2014 is the only year since 2011 in which the Lynx did not advance to the WNBA Finals and it is also the only year that the Lynx had to a face a team that finished with the first- or second-best record during the regular season. Until now.

Minnesota’s Opponents on Trips to Finals (overall league record ranking)
Year West Semis West Finals Finals
2011 San Antonio (8) Phoenix (T-6) Atlanta (5)
2012* Seattle (7) Los Angeles (3) Indiana (4)
2013 Seattle (T-5) Phoenix (4) Atlanta (T-5)
2015** Los Angeles (8) Phoenix (T-4) Indiana (T-4)

(Notes: *Lynx lost in Finals; **Lynx finished with second-best overall record during regular season, all other years they finished first)

The Lynx are just one win away from matching the Houston Comets with four WNBA titles. But in order to match the league’s first dynasty, they must overcome their best Finals opponent yet.

Minnesota’s Finals Opponents
Year Opponent Record (Win%)
2011 Atlanta 20-14 (.588)
2012 Indiana 22-12 (.647)*
2013 Atlanta 17-17 (.500)
2015 Indiana 20-14 (.588)
2016 Los Angeles 26-8 (.765)

(Note: *Lynx lost Finals)

“Yeah, it feels really weird,” Augustus said of facing another Western Conference team in the Finals. “But at the end of the day, you just want the two best overall teams to play. Even though it’s two Western Conference teams, I think it’s great for the league that it’s these two teams playing.”

Not only was this matchup billed like a heavyweight prizefight in the lead-up to the Finals, but the series has also matched or exceeded expectations.

The series began with a game-winning shot at the buzzer as L.A. landed the first shot in Minnesota. The Lynx fired right back with a resounding win in Game 2 to even the series as it shifted to Southern California, where the Sparks bounced right back with a first-quarter explosion that put the Lynx on their heels, unable to recover. That is until Game 4, when Maya Moore put the Lynx on her back with their season and title defense on the line.

Through four games, only six points separate these two teams as they get set to meet back in Minneapolis for a winner-take-all Game 5.

“I’m glad it’s going five games,” said Augustus. “This is great basketball.”