So, how do you make a really good, juicy rivalry? Asked for a recipe, Lynx forward Maya Moore smiled.
Step one: “You have to have the best ingredients, first,” she said. “Both teams have to have great players, great staff. Emotion, that has to be there, too.”
So far, so good.
You also need some spice, she said. Maybe a trace of bitterness, some heat.
“All I know is it will taste really good,” Moore said. “At least for the team that wins.”
Thursday night at Xcel Energy Center the 12-1 Lynx will play host to the 12-3 Los Angeles Sparks, easily the two best teams in the WNBA as midseason approaches.
But that’s not all. This is also a rematch of last season’s WNBA Finals, a five-game series of give-and-take that saw the Sparks win, on the Target Center floor, in the waning seconds of Game 5 on Nneka Ogwumike’s put-back basket.
The Lynx have waited a while for this, months since that 77-76 defeat Oct. 20. To be clear, nothing that happens Thursday will change what happened last fall. As Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve put it, nobody will be hoisting a trophy at game’s end.
But, even if this is just an appetizer for an expected playoff series down the road, it matters.
“We can’t get a trophy [Thursday],” Lynx guard Seimone Augustus said. “But we can make a statement.”
Emotions run deep
As recently as the start of training camp, the Lynx were talking about the pain of that Game 5 loss.
Reeve said it always would haunt her, a loss so difficult to take that she couldn’t bring herself to watch the tape of the game for months; she only did so as training camp approached to reach some sort of closure.
Moore and Lindsay Whalen said it was the most difficult loss of their careers — high school, college, pro — period.
“I don’t’ think you can escape that,” Reeve said. “That was a tough, tough loss. Now, it’s been a while. This is a new season. But you’re going to see that emotion bubble up, very quickly, to the surface. At least that’s my suspicion.”
When it comes to top Lynx rivals, it used to be Phoenix, easily. Those two teams went head-to-head in the playoffs year after year. And then the personalities. Who can forget the opening game of the 2013 Western Conference finals, when, with emotions running so high a fight seemed possible, Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi leaned over and planted a rather sarcastic kiss on Augustus’ cheek?
But now it’s L.A.
The two have been good for a while. They’ve met in the playoffs in successive seasons. Last year, Los Angeles finally was able to break through.
“That was tough,” Whalen said of last fall’s Game 5. “It was a contested series, it was an all-time great finals. It was a tough loss.”
Said Moore: “There is so much natural motivation there. Now, there is a fine line between being consumed by the past and wanting to stay focused only in the present. Let’s just say I use [that loss] to help fuel my process of getting ready for the game.”
On a national conference call Wednesday, Sparks star Candace Parker said she looks at Thursday’s game as a litmus test.
“It will be a good opportunity to see where we are against the top team in the league,” she said.
It could be more. The Lynx are atop the league right now, but the Sparks, with a league-best eight-game winning streak, are right there.
“We’re excited to play them, excited to hold up our end of the rivalry,” Parker said. “But it’s only a rivalry when you beat a team multiple times in the playoffs. We have to get a couple more [playoff series] wins for it truly to be a rivalry. But it is becoming that.”
Depends on your point of view.
“It’s brewing,” said Augustus, who joked about the chances of Reeve drawing a first-quarter technical foul. “We still have a little bitterness. It has taken a while for us to play them again. We have to shake that salt off some sort of way.”
This is a good place to start.
“We’re going to fight for every advantage we can get,” Moore said. “This is the first of three times we’ll play them this season. There is a lot on the line, and it creates a great atmosphere. So turn the fire up in the kitchen.”