The coaches and players for the undefeated Lynx and Sparks have to say all the necessary, boring stuff, such as that no championships will be won this week, when the teams play each other twice, and that, for the most part, they have to approach these games — Tuesday in Los Angeles and Friday in Minnesota — like any others in the relatively short WNBA season (34 games), in which every win and loss means something.
“We don’t look up. We stay in the moment,” Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said. “This team is exceptional at doing that. People ask why we’ve been good for so long. That’s probably the most understated thing. That is the reason.”
Are Sparks favored against the Lynx?
L.A. hosts Minnesota on Tuesday in a battle of unbeatens. Which team’s start is more impressive? Which has the better chance of extending its streak? Do Kevin Pelton’s analytics hold the answer?
These teams are pretty much required to do the nose-to-the-grindstone thing; it’s part of their jobs. All of us who follow the WNBA, though, are under no such restraint, so let’s enjoy this with an exclamation point! Or two!!
Even Reeve readily acknowledged that she understands why WNBA followers are so hyped for the Lynx versus the Sparks.
“It’s fun for both teams,” she said. “[But] this has nothing to do with how things are going to end.”
Maybe not, but it might give us an indication. With the change in the playoff format no longer requiring a WNBA Finals matchup between the Western and Eastern conferences, we know that Lynx-Sparks could be a meeting between potential finalists, even though both teams are in the West.
Is Tuesday’s contest between the 12-0 Lynx and 11-0 Sparks the biggest regular-season game in WNBA history? Short of the very first game — which happened on the same date, June 21, back in 1997 — this might be the “biggest,” depending on your definition of that designation. We’ve never had two WNBA teams with perfect records this deep into the season. That’s a quirk of the schedule; it’s somewhat unusual that two teams from the same conference aren’t meeting until this late.
Both teams have had a few games that could have gotten away from them but didn’t. But for the most part, the Lynx and Sparks have been dominant — enough that fans and media started thinking weeks ago about how these teams would fare against each other. There has been lots of time for anticipation to build.
Then there are the various subplots and historic notes about these two teams. Los Angeles is one of the league’s original franchises and was host to the aforementioned first game in WNBA history. The Sparks won back-to-back titles in 2001 and ’02, then lost to Detroit in the WNBA Finals in 2003. They have not advanced that far since, despite a considerable amount of talent passing through, including what’s in place now, led by Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, both former No. 1 picks.
The feeling of wanting to return the Sparks to past glory is something Ogwumike relishes.
“I always tell people I wouldn’t have wanted to get drafted anywhere else,” she said. “This is a franchise that has been a part of the league since its inception. It’s a historically fanatical city for sports. I think it’s amazing that two teams are playing so well. The 20th season is a very important milestone for the WNBA, and I’m proud to be a reflection of this league’s growth.”
Meanwhile, Minnesota began play in 1999, the third year of the league. The Lynx were a mediocre franchise until everything came together in 2010, with the hiring of Reeve as coach and the drafting of Maya Moore as the top pick in 2011. The Lynx have won three of the past five championships and have become the model franchise in the league.
Individually, this is a matchup of several big stars, some of whom are expected to be named Tuesday in the “Top 20 at 20” announcement of the league’s best players in its first 20 seasons. There are also veteran role players who are doing their jobs so well that they are impacting every game. These are not just the two teams with the best records — they are the teams that seem to be the most solidly put together for the long haul this season.
But there’s also this: The Lynx have four players — Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles — who are on the U.S. Olympic team for the Rio Games. And Reeve is an assistant coach for that team.
None of the Sparks players made the U.S. squad — Parker’s absence was the most controversial — and that might add to L.A.’s fuel in a motivational sense. Even if it doesn’t, we’ll be watching to see how the Olympics impact both teams, in regard to fatigue in the postseason. Will it help that the Sparks will get more rest in August?
It remains to be seen how that will all play out. The unfortunate variable of injuries is always a potential factor. Plus, other teams might start to jell as the summer moves on. But it seems unlikely that the Lynx and the Sparks will be anything but favored to continue this level of play for the rest of 2016, and that’s something for us to appreciate.
“We really enjoy the competition of playing a quality team like L.A.,” Reeve said. “I’m envious of our players. This is the time that I’d love to roll back the clock and put my tennis shoes on and get out there and play.”