The Lynx, after defeating the Stars on Friday night, scurried out of San Antonio to escape the remnants of Hurricane Harvey. The tempest was behind them, but potential trouble still brewed as they waited to board a flight to Los Angeles, where they will play their archrival Sunday night.
The Sparks are 1½ games behind the first-place Lynx in the WNBA standings, with the regular season ending Sept. 3. The Lynx can clinch the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the postseason with a victory at Staples Center. A loss makes the stretch run stormier than most would have anticipated a month ago, when the Lynx had lost only twice all season.
Since then, it has been a test of will as the Lynx (24-6) fight to fend off the Sparks (23-8), who are 8-2 over their past 10 games, compared to the Lynx, who are 6-4 over the same period.
So, as Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve considers the weight of this game, and this team that ripped their hearts out in last year's WNBA Finals, there is a choice.
"You can take the easy route, win [Sunday], be in first place and they can't catch you," Reeve said. "Or, if you're not successful, you can go to head-to-head and have to win the remaining three. We'll find out. Either way, we can get it done."
The two have split outcomes this season at Xcel Energy Center. Renee Montgomery and Sylvia Fowles scored 20 points apiece in an 88-77 Lynx victory in early July. In that game, the Sparks got 27 from Nneka Ogwumike, but Candace Parker was held to only two points.
A month later, this time without the injured Lindsay Whalen, the Lynx fell 70-64 at home.
Sparks guard Alana Beard is one of the best defenders in the league and is likely to pressure Montgomery to hamper the Lynx's backcourt ball movement. Like Fowles, a disrupter who alters shots and game-plans, Beard is a contender for defensive player of the year.
More than anything, it will be defense — who applies it and who bends to it — that will determine the most critical game on the schedule to date.
Reeve said that last year's playoffs and the two previous games this season against L.A. showed the Lynx some opportunities for improvement, like moving the Sparks away from their defensive schemes and making the Lynx more mindful of when they aren't making things hard enough on offenses.
"Both teams are pretty prideful about their defense," Reeve said. " ... Our defense is going to give us a chance to win the game."
A win would ease pressure the rest of the way: Wednesday at Indiana, Friday at home against Chicago and Sept. 3 at home against Washington.
The Sparks have two more games left, both at home, against Atlanta on Friday and Connecticut on Sept. 3.
The Lynx have already earned a spot in the WNBA semifinals, which means they get a double-bye to start the postseason. First-round games are Sept. 6 and 7. Second-round games are Sept. 10. The semifinals, which for the Lynx will be at Williams Arena instead of the X, begin Sept. 12.
It's quite possible Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson (ankle) will be back before the playoffs. Whalen, in Week 3 of her rehab since undergoing hand surgery, is unlikely to return until the postseason.
"It would be irresponsible for her to come back prior to the start of the playoffs," Reeve said. "Even if she could, we probably wouldn't do it."
After all, there is much more to play for — win or lose in LA.
"I really like to be in the position we're in, with teams looking up to us hoping we lose and we have a chance to do something," Reeve said.