Sunday afternoon in Minnesota, the dream matchup between the WNBA's two superteams begins in a WNBA Finals between the Minnesota Lynx and the Los Angeles Sparks. Game 1 is at 3 p.m. EST, and will be televised by ABC.
The two combined to finish 54-14 this year, each earning the double bye in the league's new playoff format, and then stormed through their semifinal series. Perhaps the most compelling part of the battle ahead is that each team's strengths are mirrored by the other, each side's roster overflowing with seemingly unanswerable challenges for the other.
In a season that might be the finest the Lynx have enjoyed during the Cheryl Reeve/Maya Moore Era — no small feat considering the Lynx have already won three WNBA titles in their first five seasons together — their adversary has been nearly as good.
“All year, we've shown that we were the two best teams,” Maya Moore told USA Today Sports. “And to be able to play in the finals will be a thrill, it really will be fun. It's an exciting challenge as a competitor. It's what you want.”
The Lynx not only finished 28-6, they managed to top the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Their roster begins with Moore, the 2014 MVP and perennial candidate for the award, but she is far from lonely when it comes to decorated teammates, from the three American Olympians who joined her in Rio this summer — WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Sylvia Fowles, Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus — to a bench that offers opponents no respite. Anna Cruz, Spain's starting point guard in Rio, is essentially their fifth guard.
“For sure, that's something we're excited about, the strength in numbers,” Reeve told USA Today Sports. “Even sometimes, you get to the playoffs, you shorten your bench a little bit. But we have zero intention of doing that, because it's worked, and it's created ownership. I think for sure, this has been our best team in that area. And in a 200-minute series, that's very important.”
But Moore did not win the 2016 MVP — that went to Nneka Ogwumike of the Sparks, who even Reeve said publicly deserved the honor after putting up the finest shooting season, by true shooting percentage, in WNBA history. She managed to shoot better than 66% from the field, and an absurd 61% from three.
Ogwumike is hardly a one-woman show. She and Candace Parker both have MVPs in their trophy case now, while guard Alana Beard is a fearsome perimeter defender, and Kristi Toliver, who shot better than 42% from three, can punish defenses that overcommit on Ogwumike or Parker.
“Nneka is highly efficient,” Reeve said. “Candace Parker is a hell of a player, so many ways to get you involved. Scoring, rebounds, assists. And then you add a third person? And not just stretch the defense, it's the way she goes about it. There's nothing easy about defending her. And when those three are really on, it's very hard to beat them.”
But the Lynx have beaten Los Angeles twice already in the three regular season games between them. The two teams entered their June 21 contest each undefeated, the first time the WNBA even had two undefeated teams that late in the season. Minnesota won, 72-69. Though Los Angeles won the rematch on June 24, the Lynx won again when the two teams played on September 6.
And so it is hard to find many observers picking the Sparks, even though Brian Agler's team finished 26-8, with the third-best offense and second-best defense in the league, and would be a worthy WNBA champion. Seeing a Lynx team in its fifth finals in six years will do that.
“They're the barometer,” Sparks coach Brian Agler told USA Today Sports. “You always measure yourselves against them. It's been very good for the league. And everybody's trying to catch them.”
Easier said than done, especially with Maya Moore around. As Reeve put it, “I always think that Maya is the one who gets us to that other level, gets people thinking, 'Holy cow'.” That's a fairly accurate summation of what it looked like to see Minnesota go into Phoenix, facing a Mercury team that had been picked as the WNBA favorite before the season by the league's general managers, and complete a sweep of Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi's team on their home floor, in an 82-67 win that wasn't even that close to reach the finals.
“I think anyone can see it as aspirational,” Ogwumike said of what the Lynx have acomplished. “For us, it is a competitive aspiration. You want to be able to do that for yourself. Tbat's definitely amazing for their team. We're excited to be part of the finals as well. But we also know it isn't just the finals we want to be part of. We want to create our own championship legacy for the Sparks. And our new era.”
Moore doesn't sound like someone ready to give way. And it's easy to understand why—if she wins her fourth title in six years, her resume reads like someone far older, but she's still just 27. Moore's ability to get to the right spot at the right time, her quiet assassin manner on the court, fits perfectly with the detail-oriented roster and follow-through of Reeve's regime.
“I look at Maya as a great player, arguably the greatest in the world,” Agler said. “Even our players, we have some really, really good players. But I can't tell you, if I'm honest, that they're better than Maya Moore. And she's getting better.”
So the strategy won't mean much — it's not like either team has some secret play or player. What looms as the series with the most talent in WNBA history, a perfect capstone for the league's 20th season, is going to come down to two elite offenses working as hard as possible against the two best defenses, and great players making great plays.
And the woman for the Lynx who's made more of them than anyone through their first six seasons believes there are plenty more ahead.
“I think this team has been one of the best at taking advantage of the window of time that we have together,” Moore said. “I'm glad to have been a big contributing part to that, contributing some great moments. And no one can take that away from us. That's already been done. But we're not done yet. We're still in the middle of something so special. I want people to watch the game, and talk about the game in a way that is about the basketball, and appreciating the ridiculous amount of talent that's going to be on the floor, and has made us the top two teams all season. To really watch and appreciate the caliber of final that this is going to be.”