LOS ANGELES – Six points.
That is the total margin of separation through the first seven Finals games played between the L.A. Sparks and Minnesota Lynx.
The Lynx hold the edge in the composite score, 545-539, but it’s the Sparks who hold the 4-3 advantage in wins heading into Friday’s pivotal Game 3.
Of the seven Finals contests these two teams have played, four have been decided by two points or less, including each of the first two games of this year’s matchup, with the Sparks taking Game 1 by a single point and the Lynx holding on for a two-point win two days later.
“That’s great basketball,” said Lynx guard Seimone Augustus. “That’s what people pay to see. Obviously, we’d like to have a bigger difference and be on the winning side of the situation, but if it came down to it, we just want to display the best basketball we can.”
The Lynx and Sparks have put on a master class in drama and excitement over the past two years, following up what many consider the greatest WNBA Finals ever with another outstanding showing through the first two games of this year’s series.
“I think that it is a great matchup and that it is exciting,” said Sparks forward Candace Parker. “If I were on the outside looking in, it’s a good brand of basketball. It shows the skillset and the talent. We’re scoring points and we’re doing things that are respectable on both ends. I think it’s exciting to watch and I know a lot of people that are basketball fans because of it.”
With the WNBA changing its playoff format prior to last season, it has allowed these two Western Conference powerhouses to meet in the championship series rather than the Conference Finals. Having the Lynx and Sparks compete at such a high level, on the game’s grandest stage, has proven the new format to be a resounding success.
“This series has been amazing for the game and for sports in general,” said Lynx forward Maya Moore. “More people have been watching that may have never watched before and they’re getting a taste of the best. It’s been a historic time for our league and for the game because there’s more ways for people to watch us now more than ever. It’s really cool knowing that eyeballs are getting on this amazing series over the last couple of years.”
Game 1 of the series, which featured four lead changes in the final minute, and was capped off by Chelsea Gray’s game-winning jumper with two seconds left, not only delivered the highest rating ever for a Finals opener, but set social media abuzz with praise from basketball fans around the world.
“We’re a team that prides ourselves on playing great basketball and for the WNBA that’s something that we always want to display,” said Augustus. “To be able to have the two top teams playing against each other, great players all over the place and to have great basketball being played where fans – I’ve looked on Twitter and Instagram – and they’re like ‘If you’re all not watching the WNBA basketball, you’re all missing out, these girls are hoopin’!’ So those are the things that we encourage and want keep having happen for the WNBA to continue to grow.”
"We pride ourselves on defense."
— WNBA (@WNBA) September 29, 2017
Not only has this Sparks-Lynx rivalry brought the WNBA and the women’s game to higher prominence, it has also been the ultimate test for these two teams; each one brings out the best in the other every time they square off.
“You have a lot of really good players and a lot of really good coaches,” said Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen, who along with teammate Rebekkah Brunson is playing in her eighth WNBA Finals. “Two great head coaches and really good staffs that put their all into it; some really good players making plays and people who are working hard. You make one mistake and it can lead to a basket. They put you into a lot of defensive situations that are tough, but that’s what The Finals are about. It’s supposed to be hard and supposed to be tough, and everybody giving it their all and putting their best foot forward.”
“We’re really competitive and have really good teams,” added Brunson. “We’re relentless and neither one of us is going to give up. I think that’s what makes it exciting. Neither one of us feels like we are safe at any point in the game. You have to keep playing and keep competing until it is over.”
That sense of competition and respect is felt by the coaches as well as the players.
“It’s fun,” said Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve. “I enjoy it because I like coaches that can challenge you and bring out the best in you or the worst in you if you don’t rise to the challenge.”
“I really respect tough competition,” added Sparks coach Brian Agler. “I respect that. And I respect teams that are really good. And Minnesota is really good and we want to try to be the best we can be as well.”
To say these two teams are familiar with one another would be an understatement. Friday’s Game 3 will be the 14th time these two teams have played over the last two seasons with only 12 total points separating them over the first 13 games.
“I think that when you play somebody so many times you know what the other person is going to do,” said Parker. “What they want to do, what’s their weaknesses and strengths. You just try to make it tough on them. That’s what they try to do to us and that’s what we try to do to them.”
At this point it’s difficult for either team to surprise the other. They will each try to add a few new wrinkles and tweaks into their sets to try and throw off the other team’s scouting, but while game-to-game adjustments will help, the real difference between winning and losing a game comes down to players making plays on that particular night.
“Who’s going to execute their game plan on both sides of the ball with more effort and focus for 40 minutes is really what it comes down to,” said Moore. “The margin of error is so small that you never know which play is going to win it for your team.”