Previewing the Minnesota Lynx-Los Angeles Sparks WNBA Finals rematch

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - OCTOBER 20: Nneka Ogwumike
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - OCTOBER 20: Nneka Ogwumike /

The two best basketball teams will be competing for a WNBA championship in a matter of days. Even fans that may not have preferred to see this rematch acknowledged the probability that it would happen. The Los Angeles Sparks and the Minnesota Lynx were the two best teams once again and swept their semifinal series to bring us to this point.

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The Lynx shot 53% from the field and 52% from three in the semis, good for an Offensive Rating of 125.6 and 60.2 True Shooting % while turning it over just 9 times per game. The Sparks shooting percentages were not quite as high by comparison, but they closed out Phoenix shooting 55% in Game 3. They scored 90 points in the paint as they took control of the series in their two home games. Los Angeles held strong on defense, grabbing more than 80% of Phoenix’s misses and posting a Defensive Rating of 98.3.

Understanding that these teams are no stranger to one another, here are five storylines to watch. One starter from each team is represented in each. Considering the collective talents and basketball IQ of those 10 names, remember that these tug-of-war matchups are very unlikely to be one-sided with a WNBA championship up for grabs.

Making tough twos look easy

LOS ANGELES, CA – AUGUST 27: Seimone Augustus
LOS ANGELES, CA – AUGUST 27: Seimone Augustus /

Few shots will ever look difficult for Seimone Augustus or Chelsea Gray. Both came through for their respective teams in the semifinals with some big shots in big moments. There’s little reason to think that will not continue to happen in the Finals.

Augustus scored 24, 15 then 18 in Minnesota’s sweep of the Washington Mystics. She made 63% of her shots, was 5-for-7 on threes, and dished 13 assists against just three turnovers. Minnesota trailed by one at the half in Game 3 of that series. Augustus took charge with a personal 10-0 scoring run.

The Lynx averaged just 9 turnovers as a team against Washington. The Sparks are a much better defensive team that can put Defensive Player of the Year Alana Beard on Maya Moore and crank up the ball pressure. Moore, Augustus, and Lindsay Whalen can still create a shot for the Lynx when they’re unable to feed MVP Sylvia Fowles. Augustus scoring at this rate may tilt the series Minnesota’s way.

Gray, now a WNBA All-Star as the starting point guard, proved her worth and then some over the course of the regular season and in the semis against Phoenix. Gray logged the second-most minutes of any player in the league. You’d be hard-pressed to expose a hole in her game. Gray made 48% of her threes in the regular season. She can get to the rim in the pick-and-roll or on her own, and we’ve seen how crafty she is once she gets there.

There are always those sets you’ll see a team run and wonder why they don’t run it again and again. At times, any side pick-and-roll run by Gray will leave you feeling that way. It will be interesting to see if the Sparks go to it repeatedly for stretches in this series. Brian Agler’s offense can’t be dissected that easily; the Sparks play with a nice flow and will run multiple pick-and-rolls/dribble handoffs on many possessions.

But one stretch in Game 2 of Sparks-Mercury is etched in my mind. Gray hit these pull-up twos from the left side after struggling in the first half. After those, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Sparks were going to slam the door shut.


LOS ANGELES, CA – OCTOBER 14: Forward Nneka Ogwumike
LOS ANGELES, CA – OCTOBER 14: Forward Nneka Ogwumike /

We don’t get to see something like this all that often. The WNBA regular season MVPs of the last two seasons will face off in these Finals and spend much of their minutes guarding one another. Nneka Ogwumike and Sylvia Fowles finished more than 65% of their attempts near the basket this season and protect that area for their the WNBA’s two best defenses.

Each has exceptional floor game. Fowles can get to a hook with either hand and finish it. Good teams send doubles and life gets much tougher. One could argue that the series will start there. At the time, it looked like New York may have put forth a nice blueprint in how to send doubles at Fowles from different angles when they beat Minnesota at MSG in the regular season.

That said, why not just beat people down the floor, pick somebody, and bury them under the rim? Fowles has been doing it all season. This matchup with Ogwumike will be so interesting because she often does the same things. Some of the biggest strengths of these two players are shared—finishing with either hand, beautifully executed counter moves, tremendous hands to block shots or generate opportunities for steals.

On one hand, Ogwumike boasts a larger sample size as a shooter. We saw her draw Brittney Griner out to the three-point line for much of the semis. The Sparks’ guards would make a beeline to the rim and get there before Griner could come all the way across the lane. That’s a tough tradeoff.

Fowles, with her strength and explosiveness at her size, has the ability to force the issue. Ogwumike is strong enough to make life difficult and long enough to contest shots. But Fowles is just bigger. If she’s locked in and her teammates are able to get the ball to her when she has deep position, Fowles will get up plenty of shots inside five feet.

CP3 & Maya

ST. PAUL, MN – AUGUST 11: Maya Moore
ST. PAUL, MN – AUGUST 11: Maya Moore /

Candace Parker’s aggression was a storyline coming away from the 2016 Finals. She acknowledged it after Game 5. It remains a talking point today. Questions swirled after she scored just two points in the initial matchup between these teams in the regular season.

The same thing came up for Maya Moore after the Sparks won the regular season rubber match at Staples Center. Alana Beard’s DPOY case really grew traction from that game in which Moore shot 4-for-11 and struggled to get loose away from the ball.

But these are the Finals, a repeat matchup between the same teams. Most of the central figures stayed in place. Maybe each will fall out of rhythm or run into foul trouble for stretches. Nothing about Maya Moore’s semifinals performance would tell you that she isn’t locked in.

Same goes for Parker. LA’s offense just doesn’t quite flow as well without her. She sees the entire floor and picks the right spots to attack, seen in her series-clinching drive in Phoenix.

Both players have also been other-worldly defensively all season long. Moore notably flew into the picture to block an Elena Delle Donne attempt last round. If she’s primarily guarding Beard, expect much of the same. We saw glimpses of that in the regular season.

Parker, too, is effective as a helper or when somebody chooses to go right at her. Watch her off the ball and you’ll see her directing traffic for her teammates. We’ll have to wait and see how help is sent at Fowles, particularly where it comes from. The decision to have Parker leave her assignment won’t be as easy as it was last round. But Parker will be making her mark in more ways than one, just as she did in the semis as the primary defender on Griner at times.

New life

ST. PAUL, MN – JULY 6: Odyssey Sims
ST. PAUL, MN – JULY 6: Odyssey Sims /

Odyssey Sims is a pretty clear answer to, “What’s different with this year’s matchup?” Do what she’s done since entering the starting lineup for a full season and you’d have a case for All-Star and All-Defense nods. Her quickness is a problem in the open floor and the halfcourt setting. Sims keeps people in front of her, which will make for an intriguing matchup with Lindsay Whalen.

Whalen, of course, is not a new addition to the Lynx roster. As the team’s starting point guard, she injected energy into the team simply by returning from her hand injury. Nobody can match her familiarity with that team’s core paired with her experience and confidence in big moments. Whalen didn’t play huge minutes against Washington, but it was a sweep. We’ll see how many she logs early in this series.

Whalen was important to Minnesota’s success defensively in that series, too. Washington set a lot of double screens up high for Kristi Toliver—Whalen’s primary assignment. Her age comes up now more and more, but you wouldn’t think to ask how old she is in watching some of her possessions on Toliver.

Don’t just watch the ball

LOS ANGELES, CA – AUGUST 27: Rebekkah Brunson
LOS ANGELES, CA – AUGUST 27: Rebekkah Brunson /

That line is some of the best advice I’ve been given on how to watch basketball and understand what is happening on the court with all 10 players. Alana Beard and Rebekkah Brunson are known to be stalwarts on that end, but you’ll have to watch them even when their player isn’t holding the ball to see how much they impact a game.

Beard’s likely primary assignment, Maya Moore, will require her to navigate off-ball and on-ball screens. Much of Beard’s series will come down to getting back into a play, something she referenced in her recent Players’ Tribune article.

Brunson, too, will be tasked with much of the same. Parker, Ogwumike and Jantel Lavender will rarely hold the same position on the floor for an entire possession. Brunson will be tracking her own assignment and helping out her teammates, who will need to get around screens set by those players.

The Lynx are on the verge of a fourth championship in six years. And considering the growth of Fowles’ game, they won’t be going away anytime soon. The Sparks are three wins away from a repeat, which would be the second in franchise history. Lisa Leslie led Los Angeles to back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002, winning Finals MVP both times. Should Candace Parker lead the way again this year, she’ll accomplish the same feat.

Who steps up off the bench?


Brian Agler kept an 8-person rotation against Phoenix; Cheryl Reeve played 9 for the most part. It isn’t a reach to think someone else could impact this series. Sydney Wiese can really shoot the ball. On some nights, LA plays just 7. We know that established veterans Essence Carson and Jantel Lavender have a place in this series.

Riquna Williams is that 8th player right now. If she’s 100% back from that strained knee, she could pose a problem with her quickness and ability to get hot from the outside.

With Minnesota, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to look beyond Renee Montgomery, Jia Perkins, Natasha Howard and Plenette Pierson for production in the right situation. Rookie Alexis Jones got some valuable experience toward the end of the regular season, including her 9 points and 2 assists in 21 minutes on August 27 in Los Angeles.

Jones hit 38% of her threes in limited minutes this season and logged 10+ minutes in 6 of Minnesota’s final 8 regular season games. Much about Cecilia Zandalasini remains unknown. She’s logged just 26 total minutes in five regular season and playoff games. We’ve been told she can shoot the ball. Enough foul trouble one night could put her on the floor with a chance to hit some open shots on the game’s biggest stage.

And those are the exact moments that players and fans alike live for. The WNBA Finals are here. Who is going to surprise us this time?

Tune in Sunday for Game 1 on ABC at 3:30 PM EST.