Inside The W with Michelle Smith

The showdown that’s seemed destined since the early days of summer has arrived in the early days of fall.

The Minnesota Lynx and the Los Angeles Sparks, the two best teams in the WNBA this season, will face off for the title starting Sunday, October 9 (3 PM ET, ABC). The matchup represents a heavyweight fight over a five-game series between two teams loaded with talent, individual awards and historical implication.

Minnesota will be going for its fourth title in six years, and if the Lynx win they will match the Houston Comets for the most titles in league history. They would also become the first team to repeat since Los Angeles in 2001 and 2002.

The Sparks haven’t won a title since, haven’t been back to the WNBA Finals since 2003 and will go there for the first time with Candace Parker on the roster.

The regular-season series went to the Lynx by a 2-1 margin, but this has the makings of a classic series, with each team possessing a chance to win. If the No. 1 seed Lynx are the favorite, it won’t be by much, given the dominant performances both teams showed in the semifinal rounds.

The showdown that’s seemed destined since the early days of summer has arrived in the early days of fall.

Here are five reasons why each team could cap their season with a championship:

Minnesota Lynx

1. Experience. So the Lynx have done this a time or five. Minnesota will be playing in its second straight Finals series and its fifth in the last six years. Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson are the league’s all-time leaders in Playoff games played. The Minnesota players know what it feels like to win a championship. They know what it feels like to lose a championship. They know what it’s like to dominate a Finals opponent in three games. They know what it feels like to be pushed to the limit. They know how to prepare, how to feel, how to react, how to respond. They know it all. That counts for a heck of a lot this time of year.

2. Depth. It’s not enough that the Minnesota Lynx put one of the most talented starting lineups in the world on the floor every night during the WNBA season; the players who come off the bench for the Lynx could be starting on many other teams. Renee Montgomery averaged 7.5 points a game as a sub during the regular season. Natasha Howard busted out with a career-high 17 points and eight rebounds in the series clincher against Phoenix on Sunday. Players like Jia Perkins and Anna Cruz can come in and provide valuable minutes. In fact, Cruz played a big role in Minnesota’s run to the title last season.

3. Defense. It’s a good start when the league’s Defensive Player of the Year is on the floor. But Sylvia Fowles didn’t make the Lynx a great defensive team — she joined it. The Lynx led the league in Defensive Rating in the regular season, surrendering 96.4 points per 100 possessions and holding opponents to 41.7 percent shooting (2nd-lowest in the league). Minnesota has been one of the best defensive teams in the WNBA for several years now, not coincidentally the same time it’s been making runs at championships. But Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve wasn’t terribly happy with the way her team defended in the series against Phoenix and will certainly be looking to make adjustments for the Finals. She said they need to be “considerably better.”

4. Relentlessness. The thing about the Lynx is, they are never going to let you get away with playing anything less than your best basketball. And staying at that level can be very wearing on opposing teams, especially during a five-game series. Maya Moore will push and score and hustle. Rebekah Brunson will pound the glass. Lindsay Whalen will drive and get to the line. Wave after wave, they will come at you and you’ll have to respond. It’s an intangible quality that has put the Lynx on the verge of tying Houston for the most titles in league history.

5. Cheryl Reeve. Every team has an X-Factor. In the case of the Lynx, their X-Factor doesn’t play a minute. But she influences every minute that is played. Reeve’s toughness is her team’s toughness. Her high standards are theirs. Their drive is her drive. The Minnesota Lynx, who have the best postseason record in league history (33-17), are a championship reflection of their high-demand head coach.

Los Angeles Sparks

1. Athleticism. The combination of MVP Nneka Ogwumike and two-time MVP Candace Parker brings together two of the most versatile, athletic basketball talents in all of the world. They have forged a great chemistry and the two-woman game they are playing is so difficult for most teams to stop. Their ability to run the floor, rebound and distribute will present a big challenge for even a stout Minnesota defense.

2. Perimeter shooting. If Kristi Toliver gets hot, the Sparks get even harder to defend. Toliver made 81 3-pointers in 33 games and has shot better than 45 percent from beyond the arc in the postseason, taking more 3-point attempts that any other player in the Playoffs. Her postseason shooting average from beyond the arc is better than it was in the regular season when she ranked fourth in the league at 42.4 percent, and she has hit at least one 3-pointer in every game she’s played for the Sparks in 2016.

3. Depth. Like Minnesota, the Sparks have key players off the bench who can legitimately influence the outcome of a game. Jantel Lavender was recently named the WNBA’s Sixth Woman of the Year and is an agile post who can be a strong counter to Minnesota’s post players. Guard Chelsea Gray has had some of her best performances late in the season and can be a true impact player in the Finals series, and Ana Dabovic is a player with strong international experience who can distribute and take care of the ball. Los Angeles is capable of matching Minnesota’s ability to get punch from the bench, the kind that can make a difference between winning and losing.

4. Balance. The Sparks led the league in field-goal percentage this season, shooting 48.7 percent from the floor, a number boosted by Ogwumike’s extraordinary individual percentage of 66.5%. They have three players on the roster – Ogwumike, Parker and Toliver – who have scored at least 2,500 points in their WNBA careers. They share the ball well, leading the WNBA in assists per game. They have offense covered pretty well. But this season, under head coach Brian Agler, the Sparks had defense pretty well covered, too. Los Angeles led the WNBA in scoring defense during the regular season (75.9 ppg) and have been similarly strong during the playoffs (76.0 ppg).

5. Candace Parker. Candace Parker has done almost everything her basketball career. Individual awards, NCAA Championships and Olympic Gold Medals. She’s done quite a lot in Los Angeles, too. She has been an MVP twice, a WNBA Rookie of the Year and an All-Star Game MVP. She has, however, never played in the WNBA Finals. This is her opportunity to finally add a WNBA title to her list of accolades — the accolade that driven and motivated her to this point in her career. Parker can play the star’s role for her team, like she did in putting up 29 points to close out Chicago on Tuesday, or she can step back a bit, let Ogwumike or Toliver take the lead and help her team in myriad ways. Parker came to the Sparks and was mentored by Lisa Leslie, considered perhaps the greatest post player in women’s basketball history. Leslie won two titles here. Parker is going to go down as one of the most gifted players of all time. She badly wants the championship to go with the distinction.

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

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