LOS ANGELES -- New York is the hottest team in the WNBA with eight consecutive victories. The team whose bandwagon has probably grown the most is Connecticut, a fun, young group that has exceeded expectations.
But the teams that are still in favored positions to win the 2017 championship? Yep, Minnesota and Los Angeles. The question, though, is who is most favored? The answer has vacillated. For a lot of the season, it looked firmly like it was the Lynx. Now the defending champion Sparks seem to be accelerating.
With the Sparks' 78-67 victory Sunday over the Lynx, Los Angeles officially nailed down its spot in the best-of-five semifinals, an advantage that Minnesota already had secured. The Sparks and Lynx had that edge last year, too, when the WNBA began the new playoff format of single-elimination games for the first two rounds, with the top two teams getting byes into the semis.
The only thing left to decide in the regular season between these two titans is who finishes first and claims home-court advantage for as long as they're in the playoffs. Technically, the Lynx are still in the driver's seat; they are 24-7, the Sparks 24-8.
But Los Angeles won the season series 2-1 and has the tiebreaker. And Sunday, in front of a sellout crowd of 19,282 at Staples Center, the Sparks were more dynamic.
"It's fun to play in an atmosphere like that," said center Candace Parker, who led L.A. with 24 points and 10 rebounds. "It's fun to play with the team we have, and to play the Lynx. We both know each other so well. It's like playing chess, and I love that.
"I hope things are clicking going into playoffs. I know that I have to be aggressive and assertive, and I'm able to do that now. I'm healthy, moving well, and I feel good."
Sunday ultimately was a showcase not just for Parker, who was terrific, but for many of the things Los Angeles does well. And for how this team -- which lost a key piece from last year, guard Kristi Toliver, to free agency -- has evolved this season.
"I'm starting to get a better feel for our team," Sparks coach Brian Agler said.
Last year, the Sparks had a strong feel for who they were almost all season long. The one thing that emerged late was the play of point guard Chelsea Gray. This year has been more of Agler pushing a few different buttons to see what worked best, and he seems to have found it. Odyssey Sims has been very effective as a starter, a spot she has held for 12 games this season.
"Part of it is we had some injuries, so we threw her in there," Agler said of Sims, whom the Sparks obtained in a trade with Dallas in February. "It's helped us."
Essence Carson, who started every game last year, missed seven games with an elbow strain and now comes off the bench. All of L.A.'s guards who played Sunday had important contributions. Gray had 16 points, six rebounds and five assists, while Sims had 12 points. Alana Beard and Carson combined for 10 points, and were very effective defensively.
Beard in particular made it tough for Minnesota star Maya Moore to get into any rhythm offensively. Moore is averaging 17.1 PPG this season, but her numbers against the Sparks come up short of that mark: 10 points on July 6, 12 on Aug. 11 and 10 on Sunday. In those three games, Moore is 12 of 31 from the field (38.7 percent).
"This is not new for Maya playing against Beard," Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said. "You have to play with discipline against Beard; there are things you do against pressure that take patience that Maya didn't do regularly. Maya thinks that she's somehow going to out-ball handle her one-on-one defense. It's not been effective for her."
Reeve was blunt because she has a veteran team that can handle it. The Lynx have not been the same since point guard Lindsay Whalen suffered a broken bone in her left (non-shooting) hand on Aug. 3 against Atlanta, going 4-5 in that stretch. They topped 100 points in two of those wins. But one was against Indiana, which has been eliminated from the playoffs, and the other was against Phoenix, which hasn't played well against Minnesota the past few years.
Whalen did some shooting in warm-ups before Sunday's game, and said she's making progress toward being ready to return for the playoffs.
"It's like any kind of broken bone; there's a timetable and I'm able to keep clearing steps with the healing process," Whalen said. "I've been able to get some shots up, and do some of my workouts. We'll just see how the next couple of weeks go."
The Lynx also didn't have forward Rebekkah Brunson for four games because of an ankle injury, though she returned Sunday. Minnesota has to be both bothered by how Sunday's game went, but also not get overly worried about it.
They still have the leading MVP candidate, Sylvia Fowles, playing extremely well. She had 17 points on 8-of-13 shooting and 14 rebounds against the Sparks.
They'll need Moore to be at her usual level by the playoffs -- where she always seems to elevate her game -- and maybe get more scoring punch from Seimone Augustus, who had nine points and six assists Sunday. Minnesota's final three games of the regular season are Wednesday at Indiana, and then Friday and Sunday at home versus Chicago and Washington.
"Each team has its own journey, its own challenges," Moore said of the Lynx, who have reached the WNBA Finals five of the last six years, winning three titles. "We're used to where we're the ones being chased; it's not new for us.
"The journey has its high and lows; [Sunday] was not one of the highs. But we'll take every bit of these bumps in the road and make sure we use that to make us more prepared for the playoffs."
Meanwhile, the Sparks were 7-2 in August, and have won five in a row. They end with two more games at home: Friday against Atlanta and Sunday against Connecticut.
"We're just all going to be gearing up for playoffs now," Agler said. "If we happen to get that top spot, we'd be happy. But our goal is to just finish off this regular season strong."