The start of this WNBA season has looked like many others: The Minnesota Lynx are very good, Maya Moore has mystical powers, and the team seems well on its way to what would be its fourth title in six seasons. But this year, there’s a squad poised to cut that narrative short.
The Los Angeles Sparks have raced out to an 11–0 start this season, armed with two-time MVP Candace Parker, 2012 no. 1 overall draft pick Nneka Ogwumike, and the best net rating in the league. Between their slow pace and stout defense, they’re pounding the rest of the league to a pulp. And on Tuesday, the Sparks have a chance to see if their attack will work against the 12–0 Lynx, and a win would upend the most dominant team in the league and get back some of the energy that’s been missing the past 14 years.
L.A. hasn’t won a title since 2002, and the team hasn’t been to the Finals since 2003. The legend brought to the Sparks by Lisa Leslie, Nikki Teasley, and coach Michael Cooper has largely faded into the background of a team now better recognized for underwhelming regular seasons, disappointing playoff appearances, and being the odd team out of the Western Conference conversation.
Just last year, these Sparks sputtered against the Lynx in the first round of the playoffs as Minnesota was beginning another championship run. “Our core group, when they are engaged … people are going to have a tough time stopping us,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said after that series. That’s still true this year — the Lynx broke their own record for the best start to a season and have appeared nearly invincible through their first 12 games. But they have yet to face the Sparks, and the two teams’ first matchup will be one of — if not the — most anticipated matchups in regular-season WNBA history.
This contest marks the first time in WNBA history a game has featured two teams with 10 or more wins and no losses. (And it’s never happened in MLB or the NFL, NHL, or NBA when you throw out teams with ties.) Minnesota and Los Angeles are far and away the favorites to win the championship — no other team has fewer than four losses — and they each feature some of the most dynamic players the league has ever seen. Parker and Moore have been linked throughout their careers in MVP conversations and on All-WNBA teams, but Parker’s Sparks have never had the depth, talent, or health to stay on the floor with Moore’s Lynx (or even Diana Taurasi’s Mercury) in the West.
Finally, the Sparks seem to have it figured out. Ogwumike is healthy after an injury-plagued 2015 season, and she’s shooting 69.2 percent (!!!) from the floor. She leads the team in total points and rebounds, and coach Brian Agler describes her as L.A.’s “glue.” “She knows just one speed, and that’s to go hard,” Agler told ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel. “She keeps things together; she connects with everybody. She’s a great leader that way.”
And, despite turning 30 this year, Parker is playing like her vintage self. She sat out more than half of the 2015 season to rest after playing pro ball in Russia, but she has started all 11 games in 2016, leading the team in assists and blocks.
Tuesday’s matchup is about more than a record and more than remaining unbeaten — it’s about the Sparks showing the rest of the league that the Big Bad Lynx can be slayed.
And if the Sparks lose? Well, they play Minnesota again on Friday.