Last season, it seemed inevitable that the Lynx and Sparks would meet for a second year in a row in the WNBA Finals. But that is anything but certain this season.
So with Thursday's 79-57 Sparks victory over the Lynx in Los Angeles, have we seen the last of these two going head-to-head for 2018? Or are we in for another postseason showdown?
One thing is for sure: The teams are not getting any more fond of each other. Thursday, we saw the mutual antipathy barely contained -- and sometimes not even that -- as the Sparks won the season series 3-1 and secured the tiebreaker between the teams, should that come into play.
Some of it was just the intense, physical play we can expect from every team from here on out. But there was also that special brand of "I can't stand you" that the Lynx and Sparks now share, which for the most part is entertaining -- except when you get a little worried they're actually going to hurt each other.
But this is what basketball rivalries are about, and this one is in its third year at a fever pitch. The Lynx were coming off a successful All-Star Game party in their home city last weekend. The good vibes of that ran into the fire of the Sparks, who had lost their previous five home games and had gone 4-6 overall in July. Their need for a victory, no matter whom they were playing, was big. That the opponent was the Lynx made it all the bigger.
Candace Parker led the Sparks with 23 points and 10 rebounds, her ninth double-double this season, and Chelsea Gray had 18 points and nine assists. Nneka Ogwumike, who'd missed the past three games with illness, returned with 15 points.
Having Ogwumike and Alana Beard (groin strain) back helped the Sparks look like the Sparks again, especially defensively.
"They're the heart and soul of the team with regard to the intangibles," Los Angeles coach Brian Agler said.
The Sparks held the Lynx to their season low in points. Minnesota shot just 41 percent (including 1 of 10 from 3-point range), and only center Sylvia Fowles scored in double figures, with 14 points.
It's the second game this season in which the Lynx have scored in the 50s. Minnesota is averaging 78.5 points per game, compared to 85.4 last year. The Lynx have won a championship while averaging in the 70s in scoring; they did it in 2015 at 75.5 PPG. But that season, only one team in the WNBA averaged more than 80 PPG (Chicago.) This year, seven are averaging over 80, including league-leading Seattle (87.6 PPG), which the Lynx face Friday night.
The Storm (20-7) are doing a good job of steering clear of the logjam underneath them. After that, it's Atlanta (16-10), Los Angeles (16-11), Minnesota (15-11), Washington (15-11), Phoenix (16-12), Connecticut (15-12) and Dallas (14-13). Those are the teams currently in playoff positions, but Las Vegas isn't too far out at 12-14. And anyone can be a spoiler, as we saw in Thursday's other game, with Indiana -- already eliminated from playoff contention -- beating Dallas.
The Sparks and the Lynx, barring some unforeseen complete collapse, are going to the playoffs. But it's anyone's guess what spots they'll have. The past two years, under the revamped playoff format, Minnesota and Los Angeles have gotten the bye into the best-of-five semifinals. This year, one or both could end up playing in the winner-take-all early-round games. And both teams have, at times, looked capable of losing to anybody.
Still, they are the Sparks and the Lynx. And this season, fortunes can turn on a dime. Teams can be riding high and then fall off a cliff. Or they can be struggling mightily and then go on a winning streak.
"Playing consistently and playing our game is going to be important," Gray said of what the Sparks have to do the rest of the way. "I think our internal leadership is really good. Sometimes, we've been a couple of possessions away, either offensively or defensively, and that changes the nature of the game. If we go too long without scoring or without getting a stop, we know that's the time we need to flip the switch on."
The Sparks did that Thursday. Now they'll try to keep it that way.