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Iconic rematch looms, LA Sparks prepare for ‘War of Wills’

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A locked in Los Angeles Sparks team put in some final reps at the Galen Center yesterday before they head to Minnesota for Game 1. They talked all things preparation, mentality, and rivalry.

WNBA: Los Angeles Sparks at Minnesota Lynx Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles, CA—

Four league MVP recipients out of the last five years.

Four former Rookie of the Year winners.

And the two most recent Defensive Player of the Year selections.

This WNBA Finals series isn’t just star-studded, it’s stacked!

And the Los Angeles Sparks know what they’re up against. Yesterday, their final practice before departing for Game 1 in Minneapolis was no walk-through or rehearsal. This was high-octane competition, and the intensity emanating from players and coaches spoke for itself.

It’s been exactly 337 days since Nneka Ogwumike’s fade-away jumper found nothing but net and crowned the Sparks champions. With that fate-altering shot came the confetti, the hardware, and the rings.

But one of the less conspicuous consequences to emerge that day was a mutual understanding between the two teams that this was far from over—the Lynx and Sparks don’t just want to win championships, they want to be the authors of dynasty.

“I never take this for granted,” said Sparks forward Candace Parker. “I think in my career I’ve learned that when opportunities present themselves, you take full advantage of it because it’s not promised…We haven’t reached our ultimate goal, but we’re on our way. You can’t win a championship without getting to the WNBA Finals.”

Rivalries, such as Sparks vs. Lynx or Cavs vs. Warriors, elicit such anticipation from fans due to, yes, the drama. But at a deeper level, the subconscious mind recognizes when it is watching greatness sharpen greatness—and therein lies the true spectacle.

Anyone who watches Sylvia Fowles, Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, and Lindsay Whalen rumble with Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, and Alana Beard immediately realizes that this is an era of women’s basketball that the fans cannot afford to take for granted either.

“I think we do bring out the best in each other because I think both teams are filled with great competitors,” said Sparks head coach Brian Agler. “And great competitors really relish these moments.”

However, the question is: who will get to say they played the starring role in this golden era when basketball looks back one day? Will the Lynx win their fourth championship in seven years or will the Sparks capture two consecutive rings and do what hasn’t been done since Lisa Leslie’s Sparks did it in ’01 and ’02?

While these two teams are intimately familiar with one another, Coach Agler made it clear that this is a different Finals, with an entirely new set of challenges.

“Our teams are different. The schedule was different,” he said. “So what I’ve asked our team to do is don’t think that it’s going to be the same as last year because it won’t be. But you can draw from the experiences you’ve been through.”

WNBA: Minnesota Lynx at Los Angeles Sparks Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

As for prior meetings this year, both teams have struggled to fully exert their will on the other. Los Angeles claims the 2-1 edge in the regular season series. Yet, Ogwumike’s sole single-digit scoring nights came at the hands of the Lynx, and Parker was held to just two points in their first meeting. Moore has been equally frustrated, as the Sparks defense has allowed 12 points or fewer to the former league MVP in all three meetings.

Meanwhile, a player who seems somewhat immune to an unforgiving Sparks’ defense that wreaked havoc on the WNBA all year, is your 2017 league MVP -- Fowles. Posting double-doubles in all three contests, the Sparks success will likely hinge in significant part to how well they can contain her.

“That’s a part of our defensive scheme,” said Sparks center Jantel Lavender. “We just have to make every shot difficult. And make sure that her touches around the basket aren’t easy. Just getting her out of her comfort zone, which is the low block and around the rim. That’s all you can do with players like her.”

Minnesota’s heightened emphasis on establishing Sylvia Fowles inside this year has been no secret, but the Sparks, too, have made adjustments. Odyssey Sims, infamous for her ability to slash to the rim, has dominated after earning the starting job midway through the year. Sims is averaging nearly 22 points in the playoffs.

“Odyssey is the type of player that you can’t really coach what she does,” said Sparks forward Ogwumike. “She goes out there and just hoops. But I think she’s also done an awesome job of bringing it defensively. She learns very quickly, and you can see that in how she contributes to the game.”

X’s and O’s aside, Coach Agler is maintaining perspective. He offered a simple, yet profound assessment of what he is going to need from his team in this series.

“You just have to be ready for the moment and step up,” he said. “But I also want our team to enjoy the experience. When you do it with joy and relish the moment, you have a tendency to do your best. And that’s what we’re looking to do.”

Game 1 of the WNBA Finals tips off Sunday, September 24 at 3:30 pm ET in Minneapolis.