With no hesitation, Cheryl Reeve’s answer was: yes.
This is the best rivalry Reeve has been a part of in her 17 years as a WNBA assistant or head coach. When the Lynx open the regular season Sunday at Target Center against the Los Angeles Sparks team they beat in Game 5 of last year’s finals, it will be another chapter — the 17th in two-plus seasons — in what has become the league’s best matchup.
“This has probably gone to a level I have not seen,’’ Reeve said.
This is saying something. Reeve was an assistant with the Detroit Shock when a simmering rivalry broke into a legendary brawl between Detroit and Los Angeles back in 2008.
Reeve knows rivalries.
And she said this one is special. The Lynx and Sparks have played 16 times over the past two seasons, including regular season and playoffs. Each has won eight games. In 2016 the Sparks won a tense Game 5 to win the title on the Target Center floor; the Lynx opener Sunday will be their first real game back at the arena, which was being remodeled last year. The Lynx responded with a Game 5 victory in Williams Arena last fall.
“This has been awesome for women’s basketball,’’ Lynx guard Seimone Augustus said. “A lot of eyes have been on the games. The way the playoffs have gone down, it’s epic. And it was needed. People needed to see great basketball being played.’’
Down to the wire
The rival recipe includes respect, competition and a dash of dislike.
Check, check and check.
“On all counts,’’ Augustus said. “We definitely have respect. But there is dislike there. I don’t know if you’ve heard the mic-up situations, but it gets intense. When we’re between those lines, we’re trying to be the greatest team of all time. Or the greatest players, at that moment. L.A. tends to be the team that brings it out in us.’’
Nneka Ogwumike’s late-game put-back in Game 5 in 2016 gave the Sparks the title. Any number of Lynx players have pointed to that outcome — and the way it happened — as a driving force last season.
In Game 5 at Williams Arena last fall, with the Sparks closing fast, Maya Moore hit a runner with 26 seconds left to ice the game. In a recent tweet, Sparks star Candace Parker said that shot is on a shortlist of basketball “vomit’’ moments, stinging shots that she’ll never forget.
“As a player, you remember the losses,’’ Parker said. “It sticks with you. You take it with you and it makes you sick.’’
Asked about that comment, Augustus rolled her eyes. Different situations. Ogwumike’s shot was very nearly last-second, where even if Moore had missed, the Sparks would have had to score to tie the game.
“Not the same,’’ Augustus said, with a definite roll of her eyes. “But I’ll let them have their moment. If that’s what they need to get ready, so be it.’’
Moore said every Lynx-Sparks game feels like a playoff game, even in the regular season. Not a surprise, considering how close they’ve been in the standings the past two years. On June 21, 2016, the 12-0 Lynx met the 11-0 Sparks in L.A. The Lynx won, setting a league record for best start without a loss. Three days later in Target Center, the Sparks won en route to a 20-1 start to the season.
“As a competitor, you dream about coming to work and preparing for a good [opponent],’’ Moore said.
This time the story gets a new chapter early, on opening day. The Sparks will have to sit and watch as the Lynx unveil their 2017 championship banner and award championship rings to the players.
It will, Parker said, add some salt to an already tasty rivalry.
“I don’t care what we’re playing the Sparks in,’’ Reeve said. “Game 5, Game 1, spoons … doesn’t matter. It’s a special thing to have two competitors that have a healthy respect for one another, but also a healthy dislike. This is everything it’s billed to be.’’