Professional Basketball

Lynx clinch top overall seed, playoff spots on line as season winds down

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The Minnesota Lynx clinched the top overall seed for the 2016 WNBA playoffs with their 81-76 win over the San Antonio Stars on Sunday. They received help from the Seattle Storm, who downed the Los Angeles Sparks 78-60 to conclude Sunday’s action. The Sparks have now clinched the second seed and the New York Liberty has the third seed locked up as the season heads into its final week.

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IMG_4610 – Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike attempts a layup while Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore defends and guard Lindsay Whalen looks on during the June 24 game at Target Center. The Lynx and Sparks have clinched the top two seeds for the playoffs. Photo by Abe Booker III.

The Lynx and Sparks have battled all season long for the league’s best record and top seed. Both teams started the season especially strong going undefeated through the first 11 games. It was a contest that marked the first time in history that two teams from the WNBA, NBA, NFL, MLB, or NHL met with each team having 10 or more wins, no losses and no ties.

Minnesota handed Los Angeles a rare home loss on June 21 when guard Renee Montgomery hit a three-pointer with 2.9 seconds left to give the Lynx a 72-69 victory in Los Angeles, and another win in their record-setting start to the season.

However, three days later Los Angeles avenged that game by defeating Minnesota on their home court, 96-74, as Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver combined for 45 points, ending the Lynx record-setting unbeaten streak to start the season at 13.

Minnesota and Los Angeles battled for the best record in the Western Conference throughout the middle of the season, with Los Angeles having the best record going into the Olympic break, but the third and final regular season matchup on Sept. 6 in Los Angeles once again had the teams facing off with identical 24-5 records.

Like the previous meeting in the City of Angels, it came down to the wire. With a second left in the game and a two-point lead, Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen was fouled by Sparks forward Essence Carson. Whalen made her first free throw and then intentionally missed the second in order to run out the clock. The 77-74 win put Minnesota back in the driver’s seat during the final stretch since they owned the tiebreaker.

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Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore shoots over the outstretched arms of New York Liberty guard Shavonte Zellous on June 29 at Target Center. The Liberty has clinched the third seed in the playoffs. Photo by Abe Booker III.

“It’s still early in September. Our goal is to position ourselves in order to win a championship,” said Sparks head coach Brian Agler. “We want to get ourselves seeded as high as possible, either one or two. Minnesota has the tiebreaker now – that’s reality. We have to hang in there if we want to compete for a championship.”

Following the Sept. 6 game, Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve said, “I hope it’s in the 11 players that we have, our strength in numbers. Like I just told the team when we subbed in the first quarter that’s when we really separated on the score. We got some flow and instead of going down we went up, and that’s what the bench has been doing for us all year long, the strength in numbers we have has kept us going.”

With the top three seeds locked up, the remaining teams are still battling over their respective seeding. The next four playoff spots have been clinched but not seeded as three teams – Indiana Fever, Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky hold identical 16-15 records, with the Seattle holding a 15-17 record, having clinched their first playoff berth in three seasons.

Only the final spot is still up for grabs with three teams – Phoenix Mercury (14-17), Washington Mystics (12-19) and Connecticut Sun (11-20) on the bubble. While not mathematically eliminated, the chance that the Sun would reach the post-season is highly unlikely as the Dallas Wings with an 11-21 record have already been eliminated.

With some teams having only two games left and others having three, Tuesday will be an important night as there are five games on the schedule with only Dallas and Seattle having the night off. By the time the Mercury-Sparks game ends, the final playoff team might be revealed.

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Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, who sat out the 2015 season, is still leading her team towards the final playoff spot. Photo by Abe Booker III.

As this is the first year of the league’s new playoff format with four playoff rounds but the first two rounds being single elimination and seeding based upon overall league record instead of by conferences, there is still a good possibility that the Sparks and Lynx could meet again, this time in the WNBA Finals. After the first two rounds, the semi-finals and finals will each follow a 2-2-1 best-of-five format.

“I feel like every game since the break has been relative to what the playoffs will be.

Everyone will be coming out with their ‘A’ game, everyone is going to come out playing

tough… All variables aside, you have to come out and hoop,” said Los Angeles forward Nneka Ogwumike.

Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore knows that a playoff matchup against Los Angeles is going to be tough. “They are a great team, and they have proven they are a great team all year long. So it means a lot to beat a team like that on the road twice. I don’t think either team played as well as they could have though. We just had to gut it out and make a few more plays and good decisions.”

Sparks guard Chelsea Gray added, “Minnesota is a great team, everyone knows that. We have an opportunity here to learn from our mistakes and take that into the playoffs.”

The 2016 WNBA regular season concludes on Sunday and the playoffs begin on Wednesday, September 21.

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