By: Jeffrey Newholm
When the Lynx and Sparks both started off on undefeated hot streaks, it was clear both teams were head and shoulders above the rest of the association. Fast forward to autumn and sure enough, these two teams are set to face off in the league finals starting this Sunday. The preliminary playoffs were a bit underwhelming at times, but this exciting finale should help fans forget about this shortcoming. I’ll begin by recapping the semifinals, take a look at the finals matchup, and then opine on the early returns of the new playoff structure.
This series was a huge disappointment. The Lynx worked hard the entire season to claim the #1 overall seed, whereas the Mercury had to go on a Cinderella run to get the the semifinals. The Lynx, true to form, fought hard for all 40 minutes for all three games, whereas the Mercury didn’t even bother to show up for games one and three. The result was a sweep so one-sided it didn’t even feel like an accomplishment for Minnesota. The once mighty Mercury went down with such a whimper that this series is hardly even worth commentating on. Given the push for more TV coverage this postseason, I thought it was a huge shame the Mercury had to knock the Fever and Liberty out only to make everybody look bad by laying an egg with a trip to the finals on the line. The Lynx don’t look to have any concerns at this point, while the Mercury will have to do some real soul-searching in the off-season to figure out what was missing in 2016.
I can’t fault the Sky’s effort in this series, but it was one they realistically weren’t going to win without Elena Delle Donne, who again picked an unfortunate time to suffer an injury. The Sparks gave the Sky a gift win in game three while holding a 2-0 lead, but then surged out to a 28 point lead in game four. It seemed Candace Parker would reach her first finals with style and flair. But as so often happens in basketball, the Sparks tightened up after halftime and pretty soon the lead was cut to eight. Believe me, the Sky stealing this series would have made for a pretty bad finals. Judging by how professionally the Lynx dispatched the Mercury, the gritty Sky probably wouldn’t have been able to keep up. But thankfully for everyone else Parker stepped up in the fourth, scoring six straight points and blocking a shot to deflate the Sky’s momentum and discourage Chicago for good. While attendance was pretty lacking in Chicago (Rosemont, really) as usual, the Sparks looked like a team genuinely happy to have won, and to culminate a fine season with a crowning postseason victory. But of course one last hurdle remains.
The Lynx at this point have truly become the creme de la creme team in the world of women’s basketball. Four players graced the Olympic roster this summer and winning has become effortlessly old hat this year for Maya Moore, Sylvia Fowles and company. The Sparks, on the other hand, are a team that seemed to take until this year to truly discover themselves. MVP Nneka Ogwumike didn’t really come on until this year, and Parker never did have a chance at redemption since a finals near-miss her rookie year until now. Whether this run had anything to do with Parker’s Olympic snub, or was just a matter of course in the franchise’s development, we really don’t know. But if the Sparks want to taste victory for a full course, rather than just an appetizer, there’s still some work to do. One concern I have is how the Sparks will hold up in a true road playoff environment. The Lynx draw a very good and large crowd by WNBA standards, while the Sky, and, sadly, the Sparks themselves, have proven to be a really tough sell. Another concern is postseason experience. The Lynx have won three titles under Maya Moore and the only years they didn’t win was the result of a herculean effort by someone else. The Sparks, on the other hand, haven’t made the finals since 2003. The Sparks I think have the sentimental edge, but the Lynx probably have the edge on paper. It is a matchup of excellent, experienced talent versus a squad brand new to success. And I do think it’ll be a competitive finale.
My concern when the playoffs revamp was announced was that the lead-up to the semifinals would be a meaningless prelude to blowouts by two well-rested teams. Sadly that is how it played out in year one. The Sparks and Lynx were light years ahead of everyone else the whole year, and this matchup was pretty much a foregone conclusion two weeks in. Something similar happened in the college game in 2014 when Uconn and Notre Dame both entered the tournament undefeated. It was a virtual certainty those two teams would meet in the final, and of course they did. Well first of all this meant the other 62 games of the tournament weren’t that much to get excited about. Even worse, the final just turned into yet another Husky blowout. I think it really was a shame the WNBA worked out the same way this year, but I hope we can at least get a competitive finals out of it. So far the Mercury let us down, home fans let us down with lack of interest for earlier playoff games, and ESPN let us down with bad slots (ESPNNEWS) and times (multiple games going against football). But the Lynx and Sparks can pick the league back up with some inspired play before the baton is passed to the NBA. There’s been some bad bounces this year but now the ball is in these teams’ court. For the good of the game, they need to make some plays, literally and figuratively.
You can follow me on Twitter @JeffreyNewholm and our blog @NutsAndBoltsSP.