Lynx vs. Sparks: What’s changed since last they met?

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - OCTOBER 11: Rebekkah Brunson
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - OCTOBER 11: Rebekkah Brunson /

It is easy to think of the long-term success experienced by both the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks, who face each other for the first time this season Thursday night at 8 PM EST on ESPN2, as a pair of constants atop the WNBA.

The Lynx have the league’s best record, just like last season. The Sparks are second. The Sparks are the defending champions, having defeated the Lynx in the final seconds of the WNBA finals’ deciding Game 5, dethroning the Lynx, who’d won the WNBA title the year before, in part by eliminating the Sparks from the playoffs.

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But the continuing success enjoyed by both teams runs the risk of glossing over the ways both Los Angeles and Minnesota have grown and changed here in 2017.

“I had a better feel for our team at this time a year ago than I have this year,” Sparks coach Brian Agler said during a conference call on Wednesday. “We have new people. I’m trying to get a feel of who can do what. And so our team is still evolving.”

This is most obvious in the backcourt, where the team’s 2016 minutes leader, Kristi Toliver, is now in Washington. The Sparks have patched this hole in a variety of ways, with significant contributions from Riquna Williams, Odyssey Sims and Sydney Wiese at times, all three newcomers to the roster.

The biggest change may well be the offensive renaissance from Alana Beard, though, who is shooting better than 60 percent from the field, augmenting her penchant for big baskets with another level of efficiency.

“She’s stepped up and made big baskets for us in the guts of the game,” Agler said. “She has a lot of confidence. She’s probably the best perimeter defender in the league. But offensively, she’s very efficient, and she makes our offense run.”

Agler pointed out that his offensive sets are less about running plays to get particular players shots, and more about finding who the defense allows to be most open. So when Beard is making teams pay more frequently, that increases the overall offensive flow in multiple ways. Between that success and the improved consistency of Chelsea Gray’s game, the Sparks are augmenting their MVP-level duo of Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker in fundamentally different ways this season.

“I think that their guard play as been exceptional,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said, noting Beard’s efficiency. “Chelsea Gray has worked her way into being one of their big three. She’s just a big guard, difficult to play against. She worms her way into the lane, uses her body well, just a really smart player.”

The Lynx, too, have found their way into a new offensive flow, thanks in large part to a dramatic increase in three pointers taken and made, led by the Rebekkah Brunson evolution.

For her part, Reeve said the decision to move to a more perimeter-based offense had less to do with Los Angeles’ success with it—a 37.5 percent mark from three last season, best since the WNBA moved the three-point line to its current distance, helped power their title run—and more to do with the league at large.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – OCTOBER 11: Sylvia Fowles /

“I think it was more our interest in establishing Sylvia [Fowles] in ways we weren’t able to in the finals,” Reeve said. Of course, those finals took place against, yes, the Los Angeles Sparks.

So precisely how much does this game mean? Well, both Agler and Parker described it as a “measuring stick”. The Lynx, after all, have the best record in the league. The Sparks, though, have the league’s longest winning streak, and the second-best overall mark.

“We, as competitors, every game matters,” Lynx star Maya Moore said. “You want to set a tone for the rest of the season.”

Moore went on to describe the game as merely one of 34, but listen to how she did it: relating it all back to the rivalry that defines this era in league history.

“But the other half of it is, every game matters in the WNBA,” Moore said. “The margin between us is so slim, and we only play each other three times.”

Then again, if history is any guide, there will be even more Sparks-Lynx in the playoffs. Just remember it isn’t history repeating itself, but rather the best, most fascinating game of chess.