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‘Clash of the Titans’: Lynx, Sparks battle for #1 spot

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 The heat is on. Two of the best teams in the WNBA have one final regular season game where the No. 1 overall seed is up for grabs. We will be having a Live Chat during the game!

Maya Moore, Nneka Ogwumike, Minnesota Lynx, LA Sparks Leon Bennett - Getty Images

The 2016 WNBA regular season is winding down, but not before two of arguably the best teams in the league race for the No. 1 seed. Tuesday’s game could very well be a preview of the WNBA Finals, but let’s not get too ahead of ourselves, there is still exciting postseason action around the corner.

The three-time champions Minnesota Lynx are well on their way to snatching a back-to-back WNBA championship title, which no WNBA team has done since, ironically, the LA Sparks in 2001-02. That is, if the Sparks don’t find a way to disrupt the agenda.

Both teams are having phenomenal regular seasons, and on paper, each side could argue that they are the top dogs in not only the Western Conference but also the league. So what exactly separates the two? What will it take for either the Lynx or the Sparks to fall short during their final regular season series Tuesday night?

You can expect a modern day Clash of the Titans—hardwood edition—except you can ditch the swords and the releasing of a Kraken, and replace it with two elite teams striving for the No. 1 seed, and home court advantage. Zeus doesn’t have a hand in this narrative.

With the new playoff format, we’ve seen teams around the league play with a better sense of urgency, because playoff positioning now has nothing to do with conference affiliation. Let’s break it down real quick:

  • Playoff rounds increase from three to four and the top two seeds will receive a bye to the semifinals. The third and fourth seeds will be given a bye to the second round of playoffs.
  • There will now be single elimination games in the first and second rounds.
  • In the semifinals, a best-of-five format has been established where the No.1 seed will face the lowest remaining seed and whoever is the No. 2 seed will take on the other remaining team.
  • The WNBA Finals will remain in the same format of best-of-five.

Despite Minnesota (24-5) and Los Angeles (24-5) having dominant records, each team has fallen to the unexpected, which proves that there isn’t a perfect team and now isn’t the time to slack off. Tuesday’s game should be a great indicator of how both teams measure up, and what still needs improvement during practice before heading into the postseason.

Here are four important factors that need to happen in order for either the Lynx or the Sparks to pull off a significant victory:

1. Protecting the ball

This is something that the Sparks have found to be a serious detriment throughout the season. Even with a 20-1 start, Los Angeles has dropped two of its past six games due to the inability to keep hold of the darn ball. In those losses, the Sparks averaged roughly 18 turnovers per game and even turned the ball over a season-high 21 times against Phoenix August 28th.

“The last couple of games, even before the break, we were having a lot of turnovers, and that’s something that we’ve talked about. Usually, at this stage in past years, it’s always been defense, that we’ve been discussing — and having issues not being able to hold people from scoring,” said Sparks forward Candace Parker.

“This year, kind of seems right now to be talking about offense…[and] have it where you just try to take care of the ball, and try to make the best decisions. That’s something that we have to do in the last couple of games.”

With that in mind, a team like Minnesota will pounce on the opportunity to capitalize and make a play. The Lynx currently hold the best defensive rating (95.1 per 100 possessions) by a wide range and are second in the league in turnovers forced per game (15.4). This means trouble for the Sparks. If they don’t take care of the ball, they could see Minnesota capitalizing on their mistakes a lot during their game.

2. Depth will matter greatly.

Consider the first series matchup back in late June, where the Lynx barely outlasted the Sparks 72-69 at the Staples Center. Minnesota’s bench presence and strong rebounding is what made all the difference.

Forward Natasha Howard, and guards Renee Montgomery, and Jia Perkins combined for 26 points off the bench with Montgomery nailing the game-winning three-pointer.

As for Los Angeles, forward Jantel Lavender and guard Ana Dabovic contributed a mere 10 points. Questions have swirled all year about how deep the Sparks bench can go, as it’s been inconsistent all year, with no set rotation. This is a game they really need to show up in order to keep up with the Lynx’ bench production.

Both WNBA MVP candidates Parker and Nneka Ogwumike did not perform at their best. At one point Ogwumike only took three shots in a span of 29 minutes and Parker wasn’t exactly efficient, either, posting only 3-of-13 on the floor. This simply cannot happen again tonight if the Sparks have any hope of making a statement.

Don’t get me wrong; it was an exciting game with 17 lead changes, and Sparks guard Kristi Toliver dropped 20 points and almost sent the game into overtime. However, it was Minnesota’s ability to out-rebound the Sparks (42-29) and the strength of the reserve that sealed the victory.

In the second series matchup — three days later— the Sparks came back with a vengeance to steal a road victory 94-76. Sharpshooter Toliver drained seven three-pointers, let me repeat that again: SEVEN THREE-POINTERS — and notched a season-high 25 points. Ogwumike also finished in the 20-point club after Minnesota failed to limit her touches like they conquered in the first game.

In this match, depth certainly mattered greatly. Lynx forward Maya Moore was the only starter to reach double figures leading the team with 28 points. Moore bruised her thigh in the previous game but seemed to play like herself without missing a beat.

Los Angeles’ bench presence was significant in the victory adding 22 much-needed points.

Utilizing the bench will be vital for the next match and head coach Cheryl Reeve has already made room to bring in a veteran to come off the bench. Minnesota recently re-signed international star Anna Cruz to the roster to add that defensive edge down the stretch. Cruz also played for Spain during the 2016 Olympic Games and shows no signs of slowing down.

“Anna has trained for international competitions. International guards pick up full court. That’s very rare here,” said Lynx guard Seimone Augustus.

“We have a few guards here in the WNBA that do it from time to time, but Anna and other international players do it all the time so being able to have a player like that harassing the other team’s point guard making it tough for them to run their offense…that’s going to create a lot of different defensive schemes that will definitely help us out.”

Minnesota is not alone when it comes to adding veteran edge to the depth chart. Head coach Brian Agler knew his team needed more experience and versatility from the reserve resulting in the re-signing of Sandrine Gruda. The 6’4” French athlete brings Olympic games experience and actually played for the Sparks back in 2014.

Even before the new addition to the team one player, in particular, Lavender, has stepped up significantly and has helped the Sparks’ offensive game.

“Jantel is one of those players that I think she has one of the biggest roles on our team, and it’s not easy for a player of her caliber to be asked to come off the bench. That’s something that she’s handled better than anybody, and so we know what she’s capable of,” said Parker.

“With her on the court…offensively it flows a lot better.”

It’s clear that both teams have made the necessary adjustments to the roster to create an advantage over the other because with the series split, it’s anyone’s game tonight.

3. Contain and limit the big man (or woman in this case) in the interior.

The interior is where most of the “clashing” of the Titans will take place. Put it this way, both teams have a strong inside presence: Minnesota’s 6’6” center Sylvia Fowles and Los Angeles’ 6’2” Ogwumike. Clearly, there’s a mismatch in size — but that doesn’t take away from Ogwumike’s versatility.

Leon Bennett - Getty Images

“She’s having a phenomenal season. But I think the thing that people don’t know is that she’s the same person. I’ve seen this for years. This has just been kind of one of those storms that’s waiting to happen,” said Parker on Ogwumike’s MVP-type season.

“She’s consistent [with] her desire to work, her desire to get better [and] desire to listen and to improve, and to be the type of leader that she is.”

Ogwumike currently sits third in the WNBA in points per game with a mark of 19.5 and Parker — another threat on the inside — isn’t too far behind with 16.4 points per game.

“There are other times we knew the ball was going to Candace, and we knew she was going to…make great plays,” said Augustus. “Now you are seeing other players like Nneka [who’s], obviously, stepped up and is becoming into her own as far as shooting 70% from the floor, and just being super efficient for their team.”

Yes, you read that correctly. The MVP candidate tears up the inside shooting nearly 70% and is currently second in the league with 13 double-doubles.

On the flip side, the Lynx have Fowles who is a beast at attacking the boards and will cause havoc for anyone attempting to guard her or even double team. The 2015 WNBA Finals MVP is averaging 9 rebounds and 13 points per game.

With the fluid ball movement by Minnesota, getting passes from guard Lindsay Whalen, Moore, Augustus and so on sets Fowles up for much success in the paint.

If the Lynx can limit Ogwumike’s touches without double-teaming, they will create a major advantage. Because, you don’t want to leave Toliver wide open on the perimeter simply because if she has a shot beyond the arc, you can bet your marbles she will take it and almost always make it.

Toliver currently has 411 career three-pointers making her only the 16th player in WNBA history to make more than 400.

But, the same defensive blueprint goes for the Sparks, containing Fowles in all four frames will be a tough feat but will definitely help down the stretch.

4. Defense will make the difference.

Opening the game with solid defense will be crucial for each team to find success early in the game, and because the Lynx boasts the best defensive rating, Los Angeles must tighten up its offense and be prepared for a physical game.

The Sparks have not always been consistent when it comes to defense. In fact, they were down 58-36 with 7:41 left in the third quarter against Dallas in late June, but somehow were able to erase a 22-point, second-half deficit. Parker scored 25 of her 31 points in the second half to help pull off the largest comeback victory of the season.

They will not always be so lucky, especially competing with Minnesota. However, since then the Sparks have cleaned up their act, and Augustus has taken notice.

“The movement that they’ve been having on offense, and the tenacious defense that they’ve been playing, that’s really been causing havoc on that end of the floor is creating a lot of their offense,” said Augustus.

“The two games that we played them, we experienced both. We were able to do what we needed to do to pull out a victory, but it was still hard.”

“It’s other players that are contributing like Alana Beard. She’s been having an awesome season.”

Juan Ocampo - Getty Images

Beard ranks tied for first in the WNBA with 1.9 steals per game and is a 2016 Defensive Player of the Year Candidate. Her defensive presence won’t be easy to get by.

One factor that will benefit Los Angeles greatly, is how they are the league’s best team in terms of defending the three-point line. So far on the season, they’ve been able to only allow opponents to shoot just 30.4% from deep.

The Sparks are also the only team with three top-20 scorers (Ogwumike, Parker, and Toliver) in the league, illustrating their offensive balance. With that being said, Minnesota must be able to not only contain the big in the interior, but also work to put pressure on perimeter shooting.

Defensively the Lynx should prioritize keeping the ball out of Ogwumike’s hands.

“We just have to make every shot difficult for her. Like I said, Coach Reeve has brought over a few defensive schemes that we were actually running in Rio,” said Augustus. “A lot of communication is going to be needed to execute this and try to get the job done, but at the same time, we know Nneka is going to make great shots, same way Candace Parker is going to go out there and make shots and do great things.

“It’s just trying to minimize them and not let them take over the game, and control the game flow like they have in the past.”

All in all, the Lynx and the Sparks have a fair chance at coming out on top in the final game of the series. Los Angeles has their work cut out for them. Minnesota has four gold medal Olympians (Moore, Whalen, Fowles, and Augustus) and solid veteran players like forward Rebekkah Brunson making plays for them, yet it won’t be easy for the Lynx.

“We’ve been together longer as far as our core group goes, so we know how to deal with advert situations to kind of overcome things,” said Augustus. “We just have that knack or that tendency, and we click at the right times at the right moments.

“It’s kind of like a feeling, a groove, a vibe, and energy that we [have]…and it’s tough for anyone to try and break us.”

It will be a tough but not impossible groove for Los Angeles to break.

“I think our main focus right now is playing the best basketball that we can and playing for first place. Home court advantage is huge,” said Parker. “In years past, I feel like we didn’t take care of business during the regular season, and we tried to play catch up in the postseason.

“This year we kind of tried to keep that in our minds and play every game with that in mind.”

Post-Olympic break, each team, suffered losing as Minnesota has lost one game and Los Angeles two, but both were able to bounce back quickly and play as they did before the break.

“We just finished a tough 28 days of great basketball and trying to bring home a gold medal back here…it was almost like we hit the restart button again when we got back here…now we are here with our team, and we have goals that we want to focus on,” said Augustus.

Both the Lynx and the Sparks won Sunday night meaning both teams have that winning momentum carrying over until tonight.

Minnesota dominated the Connecticut Sun (who handed them two losses this season) 93-79. Moore led all scorers with 24 points and five rebounds. Adding to the score, Fowles finished with 18 points and eight boards.

Los Angeles also came out victorious against the Indiana Fever 88-81 with Ogwumike scoring 21 points, six rebounds, and eight assists. The other double-digit scorers, Parker and Toliver, put up 19 and 18 points respectively.

If either Los Angeles or Minnesota executes each of those factors above, you can expect a modern day Clash of the Titans without the theatrics but definitely edge-of-your-seat great basketball.

“The third game is going to be just the battle, the clash of the titans as far as who wants it more, because now we both understand where we are trying to get to and what we are trying to do,” said Augustus.