Never doubt the heart of a champion.
Both Minnesota and Los Angeles are repeating that mantra as the WNBA postseason gets set to begin Tuesday night.
And once again, the Lynx and Sparks have a playoff date.
For two straight years, the league’s two dominant franchises have played for the WNBA championship. Each Finals series went five games with the Sparks winning the title two years ago and the Lynx hoisting the trophy last season.
And while the Lynx have been to the WNBA Finals six of the past seven years and have won championships in the odd years this decade — 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017 — it’s the Sparks who own the series edge during this roller-coaster season having won three of the four games the two have played.
But this time around in the postseason, their matchup is much, much different.
The seventh-seeded Lynx (18-16) travel to Los Angeles to take on the sixth-seeded Sparks (19-15) in a single-elimination game Tuesday night at Staples Center. No Finals rematch, as many expected.
Just one game for Minnesota’s dynasty to live and play again. Just one game for Los Angeles to have a chance to have the “D” word associated with their recent run.
The reward for the winner of Tuesday’s game — stay alive and head back across the country to face either the Connecticut Sun or the Washington Mystics on Thursday night in another win-or-go home game.
“If it’s meant for us to do great things this year, we will,” a confident Seimone Augustus told Fox Sports North last week. “But we’re going to make sure we’re doing what we need to do to make that happen.”
Neither the Lynx nor the Sparks have been their normal self during the regular season.
The condensed season didn’t give teams much time off or time to practice. And age just might be catching up to the Lynx, as well. Maya Moore, at 29, is the youngest of the core that has made the Lynx, the team of the decade.
“New history will be created with this one,” Moore said of the single-elimination game. “Any time we can create a new, another chapter in the story because of the history — I’m sure it will create some fun.”
The Lynx are riding a wave of emotion from their floor general, Lindsay Whelan, who has said this will be her final season. Tuesday night could be the last game for the player who has won the most games in the WNBA.
“There’s just something about this team, so we’re going in and absolutely leaving it all out there, for sure,” Whalen told Fox Sports North. “We’re going to go in there and see what happens, but I wouldn’t want to play us if I was another team in this situation, so we’ll be ready to go.”
Whalen can bet the Sparks feel the same way — backs to the wall, no margin for error.
Los Angeles has been beset by injuries from the get-go, some not so significant, but perhaps enough to throw them off their game.
While Candace Parker remains the team leader, and players like Alana Beard and Nneka Ogwumike are crucial to the Sparks’ fate, Chelsea Gray remains a bit under the radar to many around the league.
But not her coach, her teammates or the Lynx.
“Big-time,” Sparks coach Brian Agler told the San Bernardino Sun. “She hits big shots. Everybody watched her play this year, not many players … go from a rotation player into an All-Star. That’s a tribute to her.”
Gray finished third on the team in scoring (14.9 ppg) behind Parker and Ogwumike. She led the team in assists per game (5.1) and hit crucial shots throughout the season.
Against the Lynx, she averaged just over 15 points per game and just under eight assists.
But don’t think that just because the Sparks have a home game they have a distinct advantage. Their only victory in the past five games at home came when they were 11-6.
But Agler thinks his team is well prepared for the postseason grind.
After the Sparks clinched a home playoff game last week, Agler told the Sun, “It was good for us to have to go from a deficit to a lead, dig it out and get to that moment. Because sometimes when you don’t get chance to do that very often, you’re not ready when the playoffs come around.”
The Sparks and Lynx met four times during the regular season winning three of the matchups. In their first matchup, without Parker who was recuperating from back issues, the Sparks were rescued by guard Gray, who hit a layup with seconds left.
In the second matchup, the Sparks took care of business at home in an eight-point win.
Minnesota won the third matchup but the Sparks dominated the fourth with a 77-59 win.
Statistically, the two teams are evenly matched. The Lynx have scored 2,684 total points, which is exactly one more than the Sparks at 2,683. Both enter the playoffs averaging 78.9 points per game, the lowest mark for any team in the postseason.
The Sparks allow a league-low 77.0 points per game, while the Lynx are next at 78.3 points per game by their opponents
But as these two warrior teams know, throw out statistics and past results and tell fans to sit back and enjoy.