Lynx, Sparks take WNBA rivalry to new level

MVP front-runner Sylvia Fowles, right, is averaging 20.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocked shots, while shooting a league-high 67.5 percent from the field. Courtney Pedroza/Star Tribune via AP

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- There are just more than three weeks left in the WNBA regular season, so it's a good time to ask: Are the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks headed for another ultimate playoff battle?

Friday, after a game that felt a bit like a Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots duel, Los Angeles forward Nneka Ogwumike was pleased but low-key about the Sparks' 70-64 victory over Minnesota and what it meant.

"It was important for this road trip," she said of the Sparks' stretch of five straight games away from Los Angeles. "We want to be able to secure one of those top two seeds and get that break. It's essential."

Ogwumike is referring to the time off that the teams with the best two records get as they advance automatically into the best-of-five semifinals series, while six other teams are involved in single-elimination postseason games. This is the playoff system implemented last year, and it gives a significant reward to the best two squads.

So far in 2017, those have been Minnesota and Los Angeles again. They've already secured playoff spots, and the Lynx at 21-4 seem very solid for the bye into the semis, minus a total collapse. The Sparks are on a little shakier ground at 19-8, as Connecticut -- which also has clinched a playoff spot -- is close behind at 17-9. Washington, which is 16-10 even though Elena Delle Donne is still out with a thumb injury, technically is still in the hunt, too, for one of the top two positions, with New York (15-12) further on the periphery.

That said, the Liberty took down the visiting Sparks 83-69 on Sunday in New York. Next, Los Angeles has games at Washington and at surging Chicago this week before the Sparks are home again at Staples Center on Aug. 22.

A lot still can happen in regard to which teams make the postseason and what position they are in, but the Sparks and Lynx have dominated the narrative the past two seasons.

There are times that you're in the midst of something great and can't quite quantify it. But that's not the case when it comes to the Lynx and Sparks. When these teams are on the floor, you can't look anywhere without seeing a future Hall of Famer. We've had talent-filled rivalries before in the WNBA, but this one is special.

The Lynx have been championship contenders for seven consecutive seasons. Dating back to the start of 2011, Minnesota is 176-53 in the regular season, and the Lynx have not lost more than three games in a row at any point in that stretch. Their playoff record from 2011-2016 is 34-13; they've won three titles and finished runner-up twice.

"I have a ton of respect for their team, their coaching staff, and how they play," Sparks coach Brian Agler said of the Lynx. "We know each other so well, because we've played each other so many times."

And who has been the biggest thorn in the side for the Lynx since 2011? Yep, the Sparks, who've won nine regular-season games against Minnesota in that stretch, and four playoff games. Three of those postseason victories came last year, when Los Angeles won the teams' five-game WNBA Finals series.

Phoenix is next with eight regular-season wins against Minnesota since 2011, and two playoff victories (both in 2014, when the Mercury eliminated the Lynx). There's certainly a rivalry between Minnesota and Phoenix, as well as between Phoenix and Los Angeles.

But what we've seen between the Lynx and Sparks this season and last has been the product of elite concentrations of stars who've had good chemistry together, and two very detail-oriented coaches with many years of success at the pro level.

Friday's game at Xcel Energy Center -- the Lynx's regular-season home arena this year with Target Center in downtown Minneapolis undergoing renovations -- was not the most visually pleasing all the way through. That was a product of the teams' familiarity, as Agler alluded to.

"The basketball can look ugly, but it's really not," Ogwumike said. "If you really know the game, you realize it's competitive, and we're both fighting. There's so much talent on both teams."

Ogwumike -- last season's league MVP -- said she went into "role-player" mindset early Friday because she sensed the Lynx would key on her. A wise bet, considering she had 27 points and 14 rebounds in their first meeting, an 88-77 Lynx victory, on July 6.

Her willingness to focus on other things beside scoring -- she had a season-low three points -- worked for the Sparks, who got 23 points from guard Chelsea Gray and 19 points and 10 rebounds from post player Candace Parker, who had just two points and three rebounds in the July 6 game.

The Lynx had their lowest point total of the season Friday, so Parker was happy with the Sparks' defense. But not entirely satisfied.

"I think every time we think we've arrived defensively, we take it another notch up," Parker said. "I know in the playoffs we have another notch. At least, I hope we do. That's what we're working toward, is to get our defense as sound as possible going into the playoffs."

The win at Minnesota put the Sparks above .500 on the road, but Sunday's loss at New York dropped them back to 7-7. They have WNBA's best home mark, though, at 12-1, and Staples Center will be the site of their last regular-season matchup with the Lynx, on Aug. 27 (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).

Minnesota has by far the league's best road record, 10-2, and that's where the Lynx will be Wednesday when they face Seattle. Center Sylvia Fowles is the front-runner for league MVP, averaging 20.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocked shots, while shooting a league-high 67.5 percent from the field.

More weight is on Fowles, Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson and the rest of the Lynx with point guard Lindsay Whalen out with a broken bone in her left (non-shooting) hand. She is out of the large cast she originally wore after surgery, and is fully expected to be back this season.

But while Whalen is on the sidelines, Moore said that communication for the rest of the veteran Lynx players is all the more important. That most certainly will be the case against the Sparks when they meet again.

"They're going to run their stuff; they're really good at what they do," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said of the Sparks. "We think we're good at what we do. In the game, it's a test of wills for the players not to let each other do those things."

Only once in WNBA history have the same two teams met in consecutive years in the WNBA Finals: Houston vs. New York, in 1999 and 2000. Both the Lynx and Sparks will have challenges trying to match that this year. Connecticut has been one of the best stories of the season, and could have the best chance of stopping a Finals repeat.