Two weeks into the 2016 WNBA season, it was clear that the Minnesota Lynx and L.A. Sparks were quite far ahead of the rest of the league, and sure enough, the two teams met in a thrilling five-game season finale, with the Sparks emerging triumphant on Nneka Ogwumike’s last-second putback. Although the Sun and Liberty played well at stretches in 2017, there was never really much doubt about the two teams meeting for a tantalizing rematch, starting with game one in Minnesota on Sunday. Although the two juggernauts were only separated by one game in the standings, the two really couldn’t be more different. Will the Lynx, the queens of the hill over the last decade, notch yet another mark in the championship belt, or will the Sparks become the first team to defend its crown since the same franchise, with completely different players, managed to do so in 2002?
It seems hard to believe today that the Lynx could finish out of the playoffs, but this is precisely what the team managed to do in 2010 at 13-21. The team’s reward for such a mediocre performance was being able to select the quietly dominant Maya Moore, and the squad has won three titles since then, each coming in odd-numbered years. The Lynx can be thought of the New England Patriots of the WNBA (minus the cheating): the team wins almost every game but seems to do so in a sterile, machine-like way. (I would estimate that Belichick and Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve smile about equally as often, which is to say, never to the best of my knowledge). After the third and final consecutive blowout win against the Mystics in the semifinals, the team orderly lined up for a postgame handshake with the other team and betrayed very little emotion at all one way or the other. For the Lynx, nothing less than a world’s title at this point will do, and nothing else is worth commenting on (unless it’s to critique a shortcoming).
The Sparks, on the other hand, are the nouveau riche of the WNBA, and play with a swagger and brashness befitting a cocky college or high school powerhouse. There was no lightning-in-a-bottle #1 pick or megastar trade that made the team powerful overnight; rather, it took years of sweat and toil by Candace Parker and her peers until the team’s chemistry finally clicked in 2016, leading to the franchise bolting out of the gates and into the history books. Although the expression is clichéd, the players genuinely seem to playing for the love of the game, and not the adoration of the crowds (which are tragically rather small in a city with almost limitless entertainment options). After Brittney Griner’s last second miss sealed the team’s berth in this year’s finals, the team reacted in obvious exhilaration, blissfully ignoring the hostile location of Phoenix’s Talking Stick Arena. If the team manages to win again this year, the franchise will have successfully swept the mantle of “team to beat” away from the Lynx, and could quickly become even more hated for their unapologetically expressive way to proclaim victory.
With professional play for women barred for all but the most talented of players, it takes a woman with a great zeal for the game to make it in the WNBA. And that’s why I think the Sparks will defend their title, again in five games. The Lynx are so habituated to winning by now that the team is motivated by a fear of failure, rather than an earnest desire for success. The Sparks are noticeably playing much looser, and still, have a “nothing to lose” attitude despite being no one’s underdog at this point. I also think, the law of cause and effect being what it is, the Lynx are due to be on the wrong side of a missed call at a critical point in this series. The bad officiating evened itself out last year, with a missed eight-second backcourt violation snuffing out the Sparks’ chances in game four, and a missed shot clock violation aiding the Sparks’ victory in the decisive game five. In 2015, however, the Lynx were gifted a berth in the Finals after an extremely questionable foul call drawn by Maya Moore. The Sparks have the talent, drive, and spunk to be proclaimed champions again this year and it also helps to have lady luck lurking on the sidelines.