LOS ANGELES -- What could have been is entirely a moot point.
The Los Angeles Sparks could have been playing at home on Thursday night for a Western Conference title, dueling down to the final couple of games with the Minnesota Lynx for the No. 1 seed in the WNBA's better half.
But that didn't happen. Instead, the Lynx reeled off a seven-game win streak down the stretch to wrap up a third straight conference title, while the Sparks dropped a pair of important September games against Atlanta and Minnesota.
So Los Angeles sits, decidedly, definitively in second place heading into the postseason.
But just because it's moot doesn't make it meaningless.
Thursday's matchup certainly didn't look meaningless, not with the league's two best offensive teams trading scoring runs, elbows and emotional outbursts in an 85-84 Los Angeles victory at the Staples Center.
It certainly didn't appear meaningless when Sparks star Candace Parker appeared to complain about a non-call under the basket with 6 minutes, 58 seconds left in the third quarter, drew a technical and then continued the "discussion" -- earning a rapid-fire ejection and sending the game into an entirely new emotional realm.
Minnesota surged in the minutes after Parker sprinted off the court, going on a 16-1 run to lead 66-61 with 6:40 to go in the game.
And then Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver responded for Los Angeles. Ogwumike scored 22 second-half points and Toliver added 16 to hold off Minnesota's late rally and hand the Lynx their first loss since Aug. 20. The loss snapped the Lynx's seven-game run and forces the Lynx to play Chicago on Sunday for the WNBA's best-record and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
"It was definitely a playoff atmosphere," said Ogwumike, whose younger sister, Chiney, the Stanford star and likely No. 1 pick in next year's WNBA draft, was sitting in the stands. "There are certainly things that happened we can't control out there, but we can control how we responded to it. Our team did a great job of sticking together."
Parker, for her part, said after the game that she was proud of her teammates. She was not specific about what she said to get the heave from official Tom Mauer, but she was clear that she won't let it happen again.
"I need to control my emotions in that situation," Parker said.
But Parker stuck around to see her team "have her back," as teammate Ebony Hoffman put it.
"I honestly think this is great momentum going into playoffs for us," Parker said. "A lot of people talk about this as a heated rivalry, but we have to get past Phoenix first. And we are by no means looking past them."
Still, Minnesota brings out a little something extra in the Sparks. Los Angeles hasn't forgotten the sting of getting eliminated in the Western Conference finals on their home floor by the Lynx last fall.
Thursday's game opened with Toliver taking the microphone and telling the crowd to cheer loudly because "we want to see them again."
Then what turned out to be a compelling, if somewhat strange game, commenced.
If it was a little weird -- Parker's dashing off the floor like "she'd been grounded by her parents" (her words) and Maya Moore's fouling out for only the second time this season, with 2:18 to go -- the fact that it was intensely competitive wasn't really the weird part. It could be easily argued that it was stranger that in the first four games of the series this season (an even 2-2 split), the average margin of victory was more than 22 points for the winning team. Thursday's punch-counterpunch seemed more like it.
"I think it was a combination of both teams knowing what we are good at, and some tough runs -- it was a game of runs," said Moore, who finished with 17 points behind Seimone Augustus team-high 23. "It's disappointing, but I'm proud of the way we fought tonight."
Sparks coach Carol Ross also drew a technical in the game's final seconds. With her team clinging to the lead, Minnesota's Lindsay Whalen hit a shot near the 3-point line with 1.2 seconds to go. It was ruled a 2-point basket, but the refs reviewed it on the monitors.
Ross said she "loved" her team's fire in a game that changes nothing about their postseason prospects.
"It was a lot of fun. Two really good teams, competing, playing hard," Ross said. "It was good to see our team move forward in adversity. There are a lot of good things we can take from this.
"You want to finish it off, slam the door on the regular season feeling good about yourself."
Because, while the standings might be settled, this game meant something.