Everything to this point, it seems, has been superfluous. Necessary means to an expected end: Minnesota Lynx vs. Los Angeles Sparks.
These are the WNBA Finals everyone has been waiting for and assuming would happen ever since Nneka Ogwumike broke Minnesota’s heart with a putback basket with 3.1 seconds left in Game 5 of the 2016 Finals on the Lynx’s home court.
Lynx star Maya Moore called the loss tragic. Lindsay Whalen called it the worst loss she’s ever experienced, at any level. Coach Cheryl Reeve said the loss will haunt her forever, which is nearly as long as it took for her to actually sit down and watch the tape of that game from nearly a year ago.
Since then we’ve waited for Round 2, and it’s here starting Sunday at Williams Arena. Much like the NBA, where Cleveland and Golden State seemed destined to meet again from the moment last season started, this is the second act.
“Very, very true,” said ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, a newly minted member of the Basketball Hall of Fame who will be working the best-of-five series. “Absolutely. They were the two best teams all season long. Other teams had interesting journeys and stories. But, from Day 1 to now, the Lynx and Sparks were the two best teams. This should be a great series.”
Ogwumike was the 2016 league MVP. Lynx center Sylvia Fowles won the award this year. There are seven 2017 All- Stars on the two rosters. Over the past two seasons the Lynx have won 55 regular-season games, the Sparks 52. They have split the past six regular-season meetings. Then there was last year’s Finals, a back-and-forth affair, easily the best in league history, that was decided in the closing seconds in Minneapolis last Oct. 20.
And so now, the rematch.
At stake? A WNBA championship, of course. But, perhaps, even more than that. For the winner, it will be a record-tying fourth title, matching the Houston Comets, who won the first four championships in league history (1997-2000). The Sparks can become the first back-to-back champions since they won titles in 2001 and 2002.
The winner gets a trophy. And, with it, some history.
Another WNBA dynasty?
The Lynx had just returned from sweeping Washington in three games in the semifinals. Waiting for her bags at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Seimone Augustus was asked if a fourth title in seven years would equate to a dynasty.
Yes. Speaking confidently, she used the term when, not if.
“I think we probably [would have] solidified ourselves as a dynasty at that point,” Augustus said. “I don’t know. I’m assuming. Houston did it, and they were the team that really started everything for this league. You could put it in that category.”
There are those who would say six trips to the finals in seven seasons and three titles already put them there. This week Reeve tried to steer clear of such talk.
Instead, they’ve talked about cherishing this, their seventh run at a title. About realizing how special it has been.
“We all kind of came together at the right times in our careers and in our lives,” Whalen said. “And we’ve tried not to take anything for granted in any year. It’s definitely been fun.”
But everyone knows what’s at stake here.
“If you were to say to our players that our team would be seated next to the Houston Comets, with four championships, it would be an incredible accomplishment,” Reeve said. “It would feel we’d cemented a place not only in Minnesota sports history, but WNBA history.”
Ogwumike has heard the comparisons to Cleveland and Golden State in the NBA, and she thinks it’s great.
“We have this really fun rivalry that everybody looks forward to,” she said after practice Friday. “I think that’s good.”
The idea of making history with back-to-back titles?
“I’m more of an in-the-moment-type person. But thinking about that brings about a lot of great feelings. It would be amazing. Just amazing.”
Used to be it was Phoenix at the top of the Lynx’s list of rivals. Now it’s L.A., easily. This will be the third straight season they’ve met in the playoffs. It began in the conference semifinals in 2015, a best-of-three series the Lynx won 2-1, and one Whalen remembers as being particularly intense.
Each team has two MVP starters. Sparks coach Brian Agler — the Lynx’s inaugural coach — is going for his third WNBA ring; he led Seattle to the title in 2010.
Agler and Candace Parker both shrugged off talk of making history, instead looking forward to the first game. But to beat the Lynx in consecutive Finals would make a strong case for the Sparks.
“What’s interesting is you see the Lynx trying to cement a legacy, and L.A. trying to become something more than a one-time champion,” Lobo said. “It is the intersection of two teams’ journeys.”
Fellow ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said the Lynx already have built a legacy. “But I do think what an L.A. victory could signal, is a changing of the guard,” she said. “Minnesota won three in five years. L.A. could come in and win back-to-back and change the dialog moving forward.”
One thing both teams can agree on is the joy of playing for a title again, matching up against the best opponent available.
For Augustus, it gets better each time.
“Each one means a little more,” she said. “In 2011, we were excited just to be in the playoffs. Now you wonder if time is starting to close in. But you have to buckle down and do this. You have to cherish the things we’ve done and the history we’ve made. … When we sit in our rocking chairs, with our kids or grandkids, we’ll look back and talk about how we were ballers. But now, we’re enjoying the ride.”
This ride starts at 2:30 Sunday afternoon.
“Your goal is to give yourself a chance to win a championship, no matter who it is,” Moore said. “But the Lynx and the Sparks have been the two best teams all year. I want to play the best. So it makes the most sense. And, obviously, the history from last year makes it even more exciting.”