Inside The W with Michelle Smith

Not every championship series proves itself to be a satisfactory culmination of a season.

When an entire season’s worth of competition results in a lopsided, one-sided run to a trophy, often the only ones who leave feeling truly fulfilled are the champions. But in the WNBA’s landmark 20th season — one that will be remembered by historical markers, great individual performances and final seasons for future Hall of Famers — the WNBA Finals has been an appropriately worthy showcase.

Game 5 between the Minnesota Lynx and the Los Angeles Sparks will tip off Thursday night (8PM ET, ESPN 2) in Minneapolis and no matter who wins, it is shaping up to be an extraordinary end to an extraordinary season, and perhaps the best championship series in league history.

From 1997-2004, the WNBA contested its Finals series in a best-of-three format. The best-of-five format started with the 2005 season. Since then, the league has seen five championship series go the distance.

Detroit defeated Sacramento in a five-game series in 2006.

Phoenix won its first title over the Shock in 2007.

The Mercury then followed up in 2009 with an epic series win over Indiana that is still remembered for stellar performances from stars Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings.

Then the drought began. The league wouldn’t see another five-game series until last season’s battle between Minnesota and Indiana, with the Lynx coming away with their third title.

And now we have this series, a down-to-the-wire classic between the two teams that everyone expected to see. A new playoff format, which eliminated conference-specific brackets, set up this battle, matching the teams with the best records.

And so far, it has provided thrills, drama, and great basketball. It has offered more than a little something for everyone.

Star Power. What more could a fan want than a marquee heavy grand finale that features three players who have won the league MVP Award in their careers – Candace Parker, Maya Moore and Nneka Ogwumike – as well as U.S. Olympians Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles, WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year Jantel Lavender, veterans Kristi Toliver, Alana Beard and Rebekkah Brunson, and up-and-coming young talents such as Chelsea Gray and Renee Montgomery? There is nothing not to like about this lineup of talent and it hasn’t disappointed.

The possibility of history. Minnesota is looking to become the first team to win four WNBA titles since the Houston Comets won the league’s first four championships from 1997-2000. The Lynx have proven they can win championships the easy way –- sweeping through Atlanta in three games in 2011 and 2013 — and that they can win the hard way — going to five games now two years in a row. Minnesota has also tasted defeat, falling to Indiana in 2012, but proving to be able to get up off the mat to win another title. Title No. 4, if the Lynx can pull it off, will be hard-won and well-earned. It could also vault this team into being though of as the standard bearer for team excellence, a mantle held by the Comets since the league’s inception.

Maybe, finally a title for Parker. Parker would finally like to get rid of the distinction that she might be the best player in league history never to win a WNBA title. In a year where she was left off the U.S. Olympic team and the All-WNBA team first and second teams, she would appear to have no shortage of motivation. But she doesn’t even need that as a push. Parker and her teammates — none of whom have ever been this close to a WNBA title — want this title badly and had a chance to do it on their home floor Sunday night in front of Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant, but came up short and missed a close-out opportunity. Now Parker and the Sparks have to step up to the task of winning in Minnesota –- a place where the Sparks have already pulled out two wins this season -– in front of a big, loud crowd that will be cheering against both her and her teammates.

Another title for Maya. Minnesota’s run of five appearances in the WNBA Finals in six season aligns with when the Lynx drafted Moore No. 1 overall in 2011. If the Lynx can win on Thursday, it would be Moore’s fourth championship in just her sixth season in the league to go along with a league MVP (2014) and a Finals MVP (2013). As far as this league’s all-time great go, she will already be placing herself on a short list at this relatively stage in her career.

A high level of play. This series is a clash between the league’s two best defensive teams this season, but this has been far from a low-scoring, slug-it-out battle of attrition. Game 1 ended with a buzzer-beater by Beard, stunning the Lynx in Minnesota. In Game 2, Fowles pulled down 15 rebounds to pace a Lynx victory in Game 2. In Game 3, Parker and Ogwumike combined for 45 points and 18 rebounds. Moore put up 31 points on Sunday -– her highest single-game total in a WNBA Finals game — to force a deciding game. Players have dominated the boards, hit big 3-pointers, come off the bench for game-changing performances. It has been professional women’s basketball at the highest level and it’s been a pleasure to watch.

We’ve had a buzzer-beater, a pair of single-digit nailbiters, two decisive victories and now a winner-take-all Game 5.

There is one game left in this extraordinary WNBA season. And considering what we’ve seen so far, it feels destined to be an incredible finish. What could be more satisfying than that?

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on throughout the 2016 season.

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