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Inside The W with Michelle Smith: Bring on the Collision

The collision course has ended. Bring on the collision.

The Los Angeles Sparks and the Minnesota Lynx – who will open the WNBA Finals at Williams Arena in Minnesota on Sunday at 3:30 PM/ET on ABC – were the two strongest, most complete, and most consistent teams over the long haul of the 2017 season.

That they are the two teams standing at the end, preparing to revisit the thrills and drama of last year’s five-game WNBA Finals series, is hardly a surprise.

But the fact that we have reached the ending that many assumed – only the second Finals rematch in WNBA history, by the way – doesn’t mean it’s been easy, no matter how easy both of these teams made it look in sweeping their respective semifinal series to get here.

The defending champion Sparks came to a second straight WNBA Finals appearance through the Phoenix Mercury. A drive into the lane by Candace Parker with 2.9 seconds to go sealed the sweep after Diana Taurasi hit an off-balance 3-pointer with 10 seconds left, bringing Phoenix back from a 12-point deficit. The Sparks survived to dominate a physical, foul-filled series thanks to Parker’s transcendent play.

Minnesota, meanwhile, rolled past Washington, but did it as they brought point guard Lindsay Whalen back into the lineup after she missed the final weeks of the regular season with a hand injury. The adjustment looked seamless, but it was one made easier by a veteran team full of leaders who knew how to pick up the slack while Whalen got back into form.

Now it’s all about this Finals matchup. Los Angeles vs. Minnesota. Two teams with strong post play, deep benches, superstar talent and the ability to play lockdown defense.

And history is to be made, one way or the other.

This is the third year in a row these two experienced teams have met in the postseason, the second in the WNBA Finals. In 2015, the Lynx advanced out of the first round by knocking L.A. out in a tough three-game series.

Last year, the two teams did battle in what many believe was the best WNBA Finals series of all time; a back-and-forth five-game thriller that ended with Nneka Ogwumike’s offensive rebound and put back to deliver a title to Los Angeles.

If L.A. wins, the Sparks will become the first team since 2000 and 2001 – teams led by the legendary Lisa Leslie – to win back-to-back championships.

The Sparks come into this series on a 10-game winning streak, the longest winning streak heading into the championship series in league history.

A Minnesota championship would give the Lynx four titles in the last seven seasons. They have won a championship in the odd-numbered year every other year since 2011 – and would tie the Houston Comets for the most championships in league history.

The Sparks also have a chance to match the legendary Comets with four titles, winning in 2000, 2001 and 2016.

To make history, your stars have to shine. Parker has done it all for L.A. in three playoff games, averaging 20.0, 8.7 rebounds and 6.7 assists. MVP Sylvia Fowles has been unstoppable, shooting nearly 66 percent from the floor and averaging a double-double (20 points, 10 rebounds a game). Veteran Seimone Augustus found her shooting stroke, going 26 for 41 from the floor in the semifinal series.

To make history, you need experience and poise and clutch performers.

To make history, you need an X-Factor or two.

What are the X-Factors in this series? The potential difference makers that could separate two teams, that on paper, look destined for another five-game nail biter?

Home-court. The Lynx will be playing at Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota. They moved there for the postseason after leaving Xcel Energy Center Arena in St. Paul, where they played their regular season games after moving out of the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis for the season. Does location matter? Or is it a matter of the Lynx fans showing up as they usually do to support their team?

Whalen’s home cooking. The Lynx point guard “eased” back into the lineup in the semifinals. In the three games against Washington, Whalen averaged 6.3 points and 4.7 assists. And she has the once-in-a-career opportunity to play for a title on the same court where she became a college star for the University of Minnesota Gophers. That might just be plenty of motivation for a big series. Williams’ Arena nickname is “The Barn”. The Lynx and Whalen want it full and loud.

Foul trouble. Watching your best players pick up early whistles can send fans and coaches into the fetal position. But both of these teams need to be at their best to beat the other. Watching this year’s MVP Sylvia Fowles, or last year’s MVP Nneka Ogwumike, go to the bench with early foul trouble could spell a big problem for either team.

Defense wins championships? For either of these teams, that might just be true. Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve demands much of her star-laden team on the defensive end of the floor. Los Angeles coach Brian Agler has installed a defensive system that has turned L.A. from a perennial postseason underachiever into a champion, a charge led by WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Alana Beard. Beard is the league’s best perimeter defender and her job will be to make life difficult for Maya Moore in this series. While both teams can score, this championship may well come down to a huge steal or a key block down the stretch. It could easily be an amazing defensive play that seals a championship.

A Star is Born? What player is going to step up and become a star as a result of this series? It could be Sparks guard Chelsea Gray, who had a breakout performance in last year’s Finals series, setting the stage for her All-Star season in 2017. It could be L.A. guard Odyssey Sims, who averaged 18.3 points a game in the semifinal series against Phoenix. It could be Lynx veteran guard Renee Montgomery, who filled in at point guard while Lindsay Whalen recovered from injury and could be a huge difference-maker off the bench.

Sweet Revenge? Minnesota says it is not concerned with revenge after last year’s loss, which happened in front of their home fans. They say each season is a new season and they aren’t looking back. And there is no reason to doubt that’s true. But anyone who thinks the Lynx won’t use a painful Finals series loss as motivation against the same team 12 months later is kidding themselves.

This series, made possible again by the league’s change in playoff format, has epic possibilities, legendary talent and the guarantee of an historic ending.

Bring on the collision.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.