Lynx-Sparks has grown into one of best rivalries in women's basketball history

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Monday, October 2, 2017

LOS ANGELES -- Maya Moore sat at her locker and stared off into space. She wasn't playing on her phone or eating or talking to any of her teammates after helping Minnesota to an 80-69 win over Los Angeles on Sunday evening at Staples Center to stave off elimination in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals. She was tired after yet another bone-crushing, heavyweight bout in what has become one of the best rivalries in WNBA history.

"I don't know if there's been another [rivalry] like this," Moore said.

Teammate Renee Montgomery nodded as Moore spoke.

"There hasn't," Montgomery said.

For the second straight year, the WNBA Finals between these two teams is heading to a decisive Game 5. Last year the Sparks won on a last-second, game winner by Nneka Ogwumike. The first two games in this year's series were decided by a total of three points.

In other words, these WNBA Finals have been exactly what the women's game needed after a decade of dominant teams at the college, professional and Olympic level which took some of the drama out of the sport's biggest moments.

Between UConn's 90- and 111-game win streaks, the Lynx's three titles in five years and the United States' Olympic teams that are so good that coach Geno Auriemma could afford to snub one of the best players in the world (Candace Parker) over what appear to be ancient grievances dating back to his rivalry with Pat Summitt and anything Tennessee, women's hoops has spent way too many of its best moments justifying its best players and teams.

It is one of the most ridiculous Catch-22's in all of sports. Being so good that you're perceived as too good. Winning so much that those wins become less impressive the more you win. Yet that has become an unfortunate storyline in women's basketball over the past decade.

We say "unfortunate" because winning is never supposed to be a bad thing. Brilliant individual play and dynastic teams are how stars are made and fans are won over for life. Yet far too often in the women's game, dominance has robbed the game of the drama needed to capture the attention and imagination of the casual sports fan.

That's why the Lynx-Sparks rivalry is so important to the game and to the future Hall of Famers playing in it. Instead of wasting the drama of this series in a Western Conference final, the league last year smartly adjusted its playoff format so the top two teams would meet in the Finals, regardless of conference. In 2005, the league expanded the Finals to a five-game series, and the format lets the drama build as the two best teams adjust and scheme for each other.

"A three-game series, you turn it on and it's over. A five-game series, people can really get involved," Parker said. "Coaches can make adjustments, players can make adjustments. It's back and forth. I really like it."

Said the Sparks' Alana Beard: "People will come up to you and tell you, 'I've never watched a game,' but they're into this series. I think it's good for the league and the women's game."

The Lynx have a 6-4 edge over the Sparks in the regular season over the last three years. Four of those games were decided by single digits. In last year's WNBA Finals, two games were decided on last-second shots, and Games 1 and 2 this season weren't decided until the final possession.

"Every game has been unpredictable," Moore said. "And each of the games has a life of its own.

"It's been fun, and it's been hard."

She laughed at the juxtaposition of those two descriptions.

"It's the highest of the highs when we win," Moore said. "And it's devastating when we lose. There's no middle."

Moore has always been the self-motivated type. She's up and prepared and competitive no matter who she plays. But it helps when there's somebody capable of really pushing back.

"You want other teams to rise," she said.

In this series, that somebody is both the Sparks pushing back against Moore's Lynx, and her individual battle with Los Angeles' Beard, the WNBA defensive player of the year.

"She pushes me," Moore said of Beard. "We make each other work. There's a lot of respect between us."

Beard downplayed the individual matchup, noting that "You can't defend Maya with one person. It's a team effort and we have schemes that are in place to defend her."

Just watch 'em play, and it's like watching Tony Allen or Bruce Bowen in their prime on Kobe Bryant.

It's like up-and-down the matchups between these two teams, with four MVPs -- L.A.'s Parker and Ogwumike, and Minnesota's Moore and Sylvia Fowles -- on the court together and two other players -- Minnesota's Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus -- who have won Olympic gold medals.

"I've never [had a rivalry] like this," Beard said. "I think it's a combination of talent, how well we know each other, and the competitiveness, which is at another level."

Sunday night the series also might have gotten its first dose of bad blood between the two teams, after Minnesota point guard Whalen committed a flagrant foul on Sparks guard Odyssey Sims in the opening minutes of the game. One L.A. columnist compared it to the infamous clothesline foul by the Boston Celtics' Kevin McHale on Lakers forward Kurt Rambis in the 1984 NBA Finals.

Maybe a little bit of a stretch, but not much considering one of the stars of that '84 game, Sparks owner Magic Johnson, was sitting in the front row Sunday night, right in front of where Sims crashed to the court.

Said Sims, "I think it's beyond the game. I'm not talking about that."

There doesn't have to be bad blood to make a great rivalry, of course. But it certainly doesn't hurt.

"It's going to look ugly at times," Ogwumike said. "This is probably the strongest [rivalry] I've experienced.

"But we don't have time to really dwell ... It's not over. That's what we have to realize. It's not over at all."

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