Professional Basketball

WNBA Finals; Lynx vs. Sparks Preview

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When the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks take the court at Target Center this afternoon for Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, it will be the first time since 2003 that the Sparks have played in the Finals, and the first time that the Lynx will face an opponent other than the Atlanta Dream or Indiana Fever in the series. Here is a breakdown of what you can expect to see during this best-of-five series.

Perimeter Shooting (Sparks edge)

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If Los Angeles Sparks guard Kristi Toliver gets hot behind the three point line, it could be a long series for the defending champion Minnesota Lynx in the 2016 WNBA Finals best-of-five series. Photo by Matthew Fleegel.

The Los Angeles Sparks shot 54.6 percent from the field while giving up 77.0 percent to their opponents during the 2016 regular season. The Minnesota Lynx shot 66.0 percent from the field and gave up 60.5 percent to their opponents. While it would be natural to give the edge to Minnesota, the Sparks hit 26.2 percent of their shots from beyond the arc while their opponents made only 4.9 percent of their three-point shots. The Lynx had 13.4 percent three-point shooting while giving up 18.1 percent in that category to their opponents. If Kristi Toliver gets hot from three-point range during this series, it could make for long games for the Minnesota defense. It is because of this disparity that the edge goes to the Sparks.

Rebounding (Lynx edge)

Both teams are very strong in the post. Minnesota’s depth of Sylvia Fowles, Rebekkah Brunson and Natasha Howard has paved the way for several wins this season when the offense has been off. But the same can be said about the Sparks trio of Nneka Ogwumike, Jantel Lavender and Candace Parker. Ogwumike took home the 2016 WNBA MVP Award at the end of the season, but Fowles took home the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Additionally, Brunson just broke the record for all-time offensive rebounds and is in fifth place in all-time career rebounding. Statistically, the Lynx hold the edge with a 56.1 percent rebounding percentage while holding their opponents to 43.9 percent. The Sparks, on the other hand, had a 50.4 percent rebounding percentage while giving up 49.6 percent to their opponents.

Depth (even)

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2016 WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike will be battling 2016 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Sylvia Fowles during a crucial matchup in the best-of-five WNBA Finals series. Photo by Abe Booker III.

Minnesota has four players on their roster with more than 10 years of playing experience, and three of them have played together on the Lynx past championship teams. The Sparks have only one player, Alana Beard, with more than a decade of WNBA play. Los Angeles does have a good complement of players who have between 5-10 years of playing experience, which is what got them this far. Sparks head coach Brian Agler has not undertaken a full fledge rebuilding effort instead brought in experienced veterans like Beard, Essence Carson and Ann Wauters to complement Parker, Ogwumike, Lavender and Toliver, while maintaining good quality draft picks. Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve built her core years ago and has done much the same, using veterans like Renee Montgomery and Jia Perkins in support while developing younger players like Natasha Howard and Anna Cruz. Therefore, we should expect to see some tough matchups among veteran players during this series.

Coaching (Lynx edge)

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Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve will be making her ninth overall appearance in the WNBA Finals. This will be her fifth as a head coach to go along with four as an assistant coach. This could be an advantage that might help the Lynx win the first back-to-back championship since the 2002 Los Angeles Sparks. Photo by Matthew Fleegel.

Los Angeles Sparks head coach Brian Agler is a good veteran coach. There is no disputing that fact. Agler spent time in the old ABL bringing championships to the Columbus Quest before coming to the WNBA in 1999 as the Minnesota Lynx head coach. Though he did not see success at the Lynx helm having had no playoff appearances in 3.5 seasons, he spent a few seasons on the bench in Phoenix under Paul Westhead and in San Antonio under Dan Hughes before becoming head coach of the Seattle Storm in 2008. As an assistant under Hughes, Agler made a semifinal appearance in 2007. Agler took the Storm to six playoff appearances in seven years, including winning the championship in 2010, the year he was named WNBA Coach of the Year. After moving to the Sparks last year, Agler has now guided his team to two consecutive playoff appearances including this year’s WNBA Finals.

Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve has brought her team not only to the playoffs in the past six consecutive seasons, but five of those seasons, including 2016, are WNBA Finals appearances. She was an assistant coach under Anne Donovan, Dan Hughes and Bill Laimbeer for nine seasons and came out with seven playoff appearances including five trips to the Finals in 2001 (Charlotte), 2006, 2007, 2008 (Detroit). As head coach of the Minnesota Lynx, only her first season, 2010, resulted in no playoff appearance. Since then, Reeve’s teams have gone to the Semifinals in all six seasons, losing only in 2014 to the Phoenix Mercury, won three championships (2011, 2013 and 2015) plus appearances in 2012 losing to the Indiana Fever and this year. She was named Coach of the Year in 2011 and 2016.

Both coaches have long and distinguished pedigrees, and have coached in numerous Semifinals and Finals series, but Reeve’s coaching experience gives the Lynx a slight edge in this category.

Playoff Experience (Lynx edge)

Los Angeles has not made it to the WNBA Finals since 2003 while the Lynx have advanced to the Finals for the fifth time in the past six seasons. However, that is not to say that the Sparks don’t have playoff experience. In 20 years of the team’s history, there were only four occasions when they did not qualify for the playoffs – 1997, 1998, 2007 and 2011. This is their fifth consecutive season playing in the post-season, though the team they are facing, Minnesota, eliminated them from the playoffs twice before in the 2012 conference finals and last year’s semifinals. The Sparks may be playing with a bit of a chip on their shoulder, but the edge goes to the Lynx, who have been in this position so many times before.

Homecourt Advantage (Lynx edge)

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The Target Center will be a tough place to play for the Los Angeles Sparks because the Lynx home crowd is also experienced in cheering during playoff action, as exhibited in Game 5 of last year’s Finals series. Photo by Matthew Fleegel.

This is where being the number 1 seed becomes crucial in winning championships. The Lynx will host the first two games at Target Center and return there if a decisive Game 5 is needed. Having 15,000 loud fans screaming chants such as, “Whose House? Our House” and “Beat L.A.” can be intimidating to opponents and just plain difficult to hear. Minnesota has only lost two games at home during the regular season, once to Los Angeles and once to the New York Liberty.

The Sparks have also had a great home court in Staples Center, which also makes it difficult for opposing teams, though the Lynx beat them twice in Los Angeles. The Atlanta Dream was the only other opponent to defeat the Sparks at home. However, Game 3 will be played at the University of Southern California’s Galen Center instead of their regular home because of a previously scheduled Philadelphia Flyers – Los Angeles Kings NHL game at Staples Center. Game 4, if necessary will be played back at Staples Center. Because of the Game 3 relocation and the deciding game to be played in Minneapolis if necessary, the edge goes to the Lynx.

Prediction

Minnesota and Los Angeles have been teetering towards a post-season collision all season long and it is finally here. The top two teams in the 2016 WNBA regular season are going to mix it up for the championship, which is what the league was hoping for when it adopted the new format. Both teams have good depth and off-set each other in perimeter shooting and rebounding. Therefore, intangibles like coaching, home court and playoff experience will become a factor in this series. Considering that each team took wins on their opponent’s court during the regular season, it should not be a surprise to see this go to a five game series with the Lynx winning the first back-to-back championship since the 2001-2002 Sparks teams.

 

 

 

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