Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com 374d

Sparks, Lynx will meet in WNBA Finals for second consecutive season

WNBA, Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury, Minnesota Lynx

PHOENIX -- Even as the Los Angeles Sparks were still on the floor celebrating a championship in Minnesota last October, there was a feeling that we'd see them and the Lynx in the WNBA Finals again this year.

And when Phoenix center Brittney Griner's last-second shot missed Sunday against the Sparks, it was official: The WNBA's best two teams will again tangle in a best-of-five series for supremacy. It will be No. 1 seed Minnesota versus No. 2 seed Los Angeles. That's no surprise, but it doesn't mean both didn't have to work really hard to get here.

"I think it will be great. Last year was fun, and I'm sure it was exciting to watch, as well," said Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, who had the winning basket in Game 5 last season. "We're going to soak this in for a little bit, and then get ready for another intense Finals."

The "this" she was referring to was the Sparks' 89-87 victory over Phoenix, a down-to-the-wire thriller that should be very good preparation for what's coming. After the Lynx opened the day with an 81-70 victory at Washington that closed out their semifinal in a 3-0 sweep, the Sparks attempted to do the same thing.

And Los Angeles looked as if it had the deciding Game 3 locked up, leading by 11 with 2 minutes, 29 seconds left.

But any team with Diana Taurasi, who this season became the league's all-time leading scorer, is almost never out of it. The Phoenix guard made three 3-pointers in the last two-plus minutes, while teammates Leilani Mitchell and Camille Little got steals that led to layups. When Taurasi's trey to tie the score at 87 swished with 10.8 seconds left, the 12,043 fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena went crazy, roaring with the chance to see a Game 4.

"We had her guarded, and she still hit the shot," Sparks coach Brian Agler said. "That's how good she is."

True, but any team with Candace Parker, last year's WNBA Finals MVP, is always going to be incredibly hard to stop. The Sparks' offense goes through her a lot, and Sunday she seemed to be in on practically every score, as she finished with 21 points and 11 assists. She also had seven rebounds and three blocked shots.

The last two of Parker's points came on a game-winning drive with 2.9 seconds left.

"I think our team is good with reads, and it was just the right read," Parker said. "I saw the lane and took it in."

She got past Little, who'd been working hard all game to try to turn Parker away from the basket. Then Griner was a step late with help at the rim, her hand grabbing the net after Parker had already launched the shot. It dropped in, and the Sparks were up by two.

"I should have been there," Griner said. "That play and then my last shot -- those two I wish I could redo again."

Griner missed a 15-footer from the baseline as time expired, and she was disconsolate afterward. She finished with 18 points and eight rebounds, but went just 7-of-23 from the field.

Taurasi is called the GOAT by a lot of fans. But whether you give her the "greatest of all time" moniker, this much is certain: There couldn't be a better teammate. Taurasi has shepherded Griner ever since the 6-foot-9 center joined the Mercury as the No. 1 pick in 2013. Sunday, Taurasi was there for her again, consoling Griner and praising her for a season in which she came back from a serious combination of knee and ankle injuries in July.

"We jumped on BG's back when we were struggling to find ourselves as a team this year," Taurasi said. "She really got us here. You always want to be the last team to win the last game, but it doesn't always happen. Hopefully, this is a building block for next year."

As for which team will win the last game this year, Taurasi acknowledged it's hard for her to be engaged when the Mercury are not involved. But she offered this critique of the Sparks versus the Lynx.

"They're going to duke it out," she said. "You'll probably expect the same that you saw last year: back and forth. Teams that execute the best at the end of games, that usually is the difference between two championship teams."

Indeed, it was in 2016 as the Sparks won both Game 1 and Game 5 in Minnesota on late baskets by Alana Beard and then Ogwumike. The series starts Sunday at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.

"It's the way it should be: the two best teams playing for a championship," Parker said. "It's great for the WNBA, and I'm really proud of the road we took to get here. It hasn't always been easy, but now we're back in the same position as last year."

The Sparks are on a 10-game winning streak, and they're doing it with a variety of players contributing. Guard Odyssey Sims, whom the Sparks obtained via trade before this season, led them in scoring Sunday with 22 points. She was 9-of-12 from the field, and her 3-of-3 from the foul line included two high-pressure free throws with 14.1 seconds left.

Point guard Chelsea Gray had 14 points and eight assists. Jantel Lavender came off the bench for 11 points. And although Ogwumike had just nine points -- and took only five shots -- she led the way on the boards with 12.

"It can be anybody's night, really," Ogwumike said. "We just have each other's backs, constantly."

This will be the second time in league history that the same teams have met in back-to-back WNBA Finals: Previously, it was Houston and New York in 1999 and 2000, both won by the Comets.

Both the Lynx and the Sparks have won three titles; Minnesota prevailing in 2011, '13 and '15, and Los Angeles in 2001, '02 and '16.

"I approach this moment with gratitude," Beard said. "For me, last year was special, but this year is more special because we've come together as one. We're even closer this year; we understand each other and how to win. Now, we have to be ready to put it to the test."

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