Ever since the 12-0 Lynx visited the 11-0 Sparks in Los Angeles, it’s seemed almost inevitable that these two teams would meet in the WNBA Finals. The Lynx beat the Sparks that first meeting, only to see the Sparks turn the tables in Minneapolis three nights later. By then it was clear that these teams were the class of the league.
And so it is. The Lynx managed to outpace the Sparks during the stretch run of the season after the Olympic break, and therefore will host game one of the Finals on Sunday afternoon. It should be a great matchup.
When discussing the Sparks, we should start with Nneka Ogwumike, recently named MVP of the WNBA. Ogwumike has been a star since entering the league in 2012, but took her game to new levels this season, dominating the interior to the tune of a 73.7 TS percentage, an 18.1 total rebound percentage (good for fifth in the league), and a league-third best defensive rating. She also became a weapon passing the ball, posting a career high 18 percent assist percentage. She basically did everything, and did it at an MVP level.
In their three meetings, however, the Lynx were able to limit Ogwumike with their own formidable frontcourt of Sylvia Fowles and Rebekkah Brunson. Ogwumike still averaged 16 points a game against the Lynx, but didn’t really dominate any of the matchups. They held her to nine points (and only three field goal attempts) in the first game, and while she was a bigger factor in the return meeting at Target Center, Fowles played her to a draw in the final meeting, another close Lynx win in Los Angeles.
Of course the Lynx have their own MVP caliber player in Maya Moore, who shifted into a more aggressive mode during the sweep of Phoenix. She averaged 17 field goal attempts and six FTAs during that series, both up from the regular season. It resulted in over 25 points per game and three comfortable wins. Against the other great defense in the league in the Finals, she’ll be relied upon to find good shots for herself and her teammates.
There are any number of statistical and tactical storylines we could discuss leading up to this series, but two things jump out at me: Three-point shooting and offensive rebounding. The Sparks led the league in three-point shooting percentage (37.5%), primarily on the strength of Candace Parker (38% on over three attempts a game) and especially Kristi Toliver (42.4% on nearly six attempts per.) Toliver was a huge factor in the Sparks’ win over the Lynx at Target Center, making seven threes as the Sparks went 11-19 from the arc as a team. In the two Lynx wins they held the Sparks under their season percentage from three, so contesting the perimeter is going to be key for the Lynx even as they have to attend to Ogwumike in the paint.
Meanwhile, the Lynx should have an advantage on the offensive glass. They were second in the league in offensive rebound percentage (30.2%), while the Sparks were 11th (22.3%.) The Lynx were also stronger on the defensive glass, and overall should have an advantage on the boards. Over their three meetings during the regular season, the Lynx were a +ten in offensive rebounds despite the same number of missed field goal attempts. All three of their primary bigs-Fowles, Brunson, and Natasha Howard-had offensive rebounding percentages over 10%; no player on the Sparks managed that (Ogwumike was closest at 9.9%.)
Whatever elements prove to be the keys to this series, these are by far the best two teams in the league, with net ratings (10.9 for the Lynx, 9.3 for the Sparks) that dwarf the next best team (The Mercury at 1.3.) Thanks to the change in playoff format the league enacted for this season, we get the treat of seeing them compete in the WNBA Finals. The Lynx are looking for their second title in a row and fourth in the last six years, while the Sparks are aiming for their first championship since 2002 when Lisa Leslie was dominating the league.
I can’t wait until Sunday.