MINNEAPOLIS — When the WNBA announced its new playoff format in January — seeding the eight qualifying teams regardless of conference — the immediate reaction in WNBA circles was the same.
Finally, the Lynx and Mercury can face off in the Finals.
The league’s perennial powerhouses had met in the Western Conference Finals three years running, and three times in five years had swept their Eastern Conference opponent in the best-of-five championship.
“Most of the West Finals we played felt like the overall Finals,” Lynx guard Seimone Augustus admitted Saturday.
The Sparks, of course, had other ideas. While Phoenix lost its first four games this season, L.A. raced out to an 11-0 start, keeping pace with Minnesota from the jump. The record sprint — both teams surpassed the 2012 Lynx’s 10-0 start, the previous record — culminated in June with one of the most highly anticipated regular season matchups in WNBA history.
“We saw the headlines,” said Augustus. “We were always neck-and-neck. … We couldn’t wait to play them.”
On Sunday, the WNBA Finals will indeed represent the last step in a collision course between two juggernauts… just not the two anyone expected back in May. But it will also represent a victory for the playoff format, bringing the league’s two best teams onto the floor for a five-game series despite the fact that they both play in the Western Conference.
“I think it’s great for the league and great for exposure,” said Sparks star Candace Parker. “I hope that it’s a great Finals series. It has a lot of buildup. There’s history between us over the years and history this season. I’m careful to call it a rivalry because we haven’t held up our end of the bargain; they’ve beaten us. I think we put ourselves in the position to hopefully make it that now.”
It’s easy for these teams to like the new playoff format after earning double-byes to avoid the two single-elimination rounds. Players on both sides smiled when asked about watching those first two rounds, content as basketball fans but sympathizing with the teams whose seasons ended in one-and-done fashion. “It kind of reminds you of March Madness in the beginning,” said L.A.’s Essence Carson.
The flip-side of the double byes is a lengthy break and the risk of rust. The Lynx enter Sunday having played three games in 22 days; the Sparks four in 23.
“It feels like we finished the regular season a long time ago,” said Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen. “I think we’ve practiced more in the last however many weeks than during the entire rest of the season. I mean, the last few weeks of the season, you’re just playing, traveling, playing, traveling.”
— WNBA (@WNBA) October 8, 2016
— WNBA (@WNBA) October 8, 2016
It’s a common WNBA practice to recruit a team of local male players to scrimmage against the pros and serve as the scout team. Minnesota’s crew was recruited from the area by assistant coach Jim Petersen. L.A.’s came from the Drew League and nearby colleges.
How much have the Lynx and Sparks played against the men compared to top WNBA competition over these last few weeks? “Too much,” said Lynx center Sylvia Fowles. “That’s all we talk about in the locker room. We like to practice, but we want to get out there and compete.”
“Our practice guys are pretty big, pretty fast, pretty strong,” added Carson. “But I’m ready to get this series started. I grew up playing with guys, so it’s just kind of, ‘Here we go again.’ But now we’re playing for a WNBA championship. I’m just ready to get this show on the road.”