MVP showdown highlights WNBA Finals rematch

Last year when Minnesota and Los Angeles met in the WNBA Finals, the Lynx felt like slight favorites in a matchup of talented heavyweights. With the league's best record, they had won the season series with the Sparks and were the defending WNBA champions, having won three titles in five years.

But Los Angeles took the 2016 championship, getting two last-second victories on the road in Minnesota.

Their rematch in the WNBA Finals is the championship series most people anticipated.

Both teams swept their semifinal series -- Minnesota over Washington and Los Angeles over Phoenix. They'll have had a full week between games when they tip off Sunday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET) in Game 1 at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.

The series winner will claim a fourth championship and tie the erstwhile Houston Comets for most WNBA titles.

This year, the Lynx again had the best regular-season record, but just barely: 27-7 to 26-8. That's big, though, because it means they have home-court advantage (even if that didn't pan out last year). The Sparks, however, won the regular-season series 2-1, although Lynx starting point guard Lindsay Whalen didn't play in either of Minnesota's losses.

The Lynx won 88-77 in St. Paul on July 6, then the Sparks won there 70-64 on Aug. 11. The third game, in Los Angeles on Aug. 27, went to the Sparks 78-67.

So after playing three times in two months, they now could meet five times in 11 days. Here are five questions that might have the biggest impact on what should be another epic series:

1. Which MVPs will step up?

There are five WNBA MVP trophies between these teams. For Los Angeles, Candace Parker has two (2008, 2013) and Nneka Ogwumike one (2016). Minnesota's Maya Moore won the honor in 2014, and teammate Sylvia Fowles won it this year.

Fowles was the most consistently effective in all three Lynx-Sparks meetings this season, averaging 18.0 points and shooting 58.1 percent.

Moore also was consistent in those games, just not in the way she'd prefer. She averaged 10.7 points -- seven below her season average -- on 38.7 percent shooting, making just four shots from the field in each game. Moore will look to do more against nemesis Alana Beard, the veteran Los Angeles guard/forward who was the WNBA's Defensive Player of the Year.

For the Sparks, Parker averaged 15.0 points on 42.9 percent shooting against the Lynx this year, while Ogwumike was at 12.7 and 45.5 percent. Each had one game against the Lynx in which she was shut down scoring-wise; Parker had two points in the first meeting, while Ogwumike had three in the second.

Whichever one gets the most attention from Lynx defensive whiz Rebekkah Brunson is typically going to have the toughest time offensively. But Parker and Ogwumike also are very good at helping each other.

2. How do the starting backcourts measure up?

It's literally the "old" guard versus the "new" guard: From an experience standpoint, these teams are a complete contrast.

Minnesota's Whalen (age 35) and Seimone Augustus (33) have a combined 26 years in the WNBA, playing together with the Lynx for seven seasons. Los Angeles' Chelsea Gray (who turns 25 in October) and Odyssey Sims (25) have a combined seven years in the league, and this is their first season playing together.

In a footrace, the Sparks would win. But Whalen and Augustus have been going against younger players for a while now. Pick an adjective for the Lynx vets -- crafty, wily, clever, shrewd, sharp -- they all fit.

Whalen played the Sparks only once this year, July 6, and had just four points and one assist. She missed the last 12 games of the regular season after suffering a broken bone in her left (non-shooting) hand on Aug. 3.

Returning in the semifinals against Washington, she averaged about 20 minutes per game, and totaled 19 points and 14 assists. She brings confidence and poise to the Lynx, plus will be playing on her old college court, as Target Center is in the finishing stages of being renovated for the start of the NBA season.

Augustus, meanwhile, was on fire in the semifinals; it was her best three-game stretch all season. She averaged 19.0 points on 63.4 percent shooting. A similar performance could really test the Sparks defense. During the regular season against Los Angeles, she averaged 11.0 points.

Sims and Gray pose considerable problems with their quickness. Phoenix struggled with that in the semifinals; the duo combined to average 32.3 points and total 30 assists against the Mercury.

During the regular season, Gray was a handful for the Lynx, averaging 18.3 points against them, while Sims was at 11.0.

3. How will the bench impact the series?

The Sparks rely mostly on seven players. Sims moved into the starting lineup in late July to replace injured guard Essence Carson, who now comes off the bench and is the Sparks' best perimeter defender other than Beard.

Center Jantel Lavender, the WNBA's sixth player of the year last season, is Los Angeles' other key reserve. She hasn't had quite the same impact in 2017, but she's still a valuable asset. At 6 feet, 4 inches, Lavender is the only Sparks player who comes near matching the 6-6 Fowles for sheer physical strength. She'll try to wear down Fowles as much as possible.

Lynx guard Renee Montgomery started for the monthlong stretch when Whalen was out, but is very comfortable as a reserve. Guard Jia Perkins and forward Plenette Pierson are longtime veterans who understand their roles.

It's unlikely a reserve on either team will end up being an X factor. But if either bench is subpar, that could be a difference-maker.

4. How good is the defense?

Try great. The teams were 1-2 in defensive rating in the league this year, with the Lynx at 96.1 and the Sparks at 97.6. Lynx post players Fowles and Brunson and the Sparks' Beard are three of the best defenders in WNBA history.

The defenses take a toll on each other. During the regular season, the Lynx averaged 85.5 points per game, but just 73.0 versus Los Angeles. And the Sparks averaged 83.5 PPG, but 75.0 against Minnesota.

So this series probably won't be decided by which team rises to the occasion on defense, because it's likely both will. Thus, second-chance points could be very critical.

The Lynx outrebounded the Sparks in all three regular-season meetings, but by decreasing numbers: 11 in the first game, five in the second, and just one in the third.

And at the foul line, the Sparks were 36-of-43 in the three matchups; the Lynx were 25-of-36. That's a deficit Minnesota must try to prevent in the Finals.

5. How will the officiating play a role?

With two teams this good and so little separating them, a focus will be on how the games are called. Also, the league acknowledged that officials made mistakes late in both Games 4 and 5 last year.

In the final 30 seconds of Game 4, the Lynx -- up by two -- failed to advance past half court in eight seconds. The Sparks should have gotten the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead, but the violation wasn't called. Instead, Los Angeles had to foul Brunson, whose two free throws put the Lynx up by four with 12.5 seconds left. Minnesota ended up winning 85-79.

In Game 5, the missed call went against the Lynx. Ogwumike's basket with 1:12 left -- which put the Sparks up by two -- came after the shot clock, but the violation wasn't called. That loomed large when Ogwumike's follow shot with 2.1 seconds left gave Los Angeles a 77-76 triumph.

Referees are human, of course, and mistakes happen. But the last thing anyone wants is another officiating controversy.

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