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3 eye-opening observations after Sparks muzzle Lynx, storied rivalry

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LOS ANGELES CA — The Los Angeles Sparks and the Minnesota Lynx are the gold standard when it comes to rivalries, and for the last four years, both teams have pushed each other to the brink.

The 2018 season has not been kind to either team, as both teams sputtered into the playoffs as the sixth and seventh seeds, respectively. The unfortunate result of this (for both the league and fans alike) is that they had to face each other in a single-elimination, win-or-go-home first round match-up. While the game was competitive, the Sparks walked out of Staples Center with the 75-68 victory, handing the Lynx their first opening-round elimination since 2004.

Let’s go over three of the biggest takeaways from the night, starting with the saddest takeaway:

1) THIS WAS PROBABLY THE FINAL CHAPTER

Yes, I said it. And I’ll say it again: this will most likely be the last time we see these two titans engage at the highest level of WNBA basketball. Sure, the teams will probably meet at some point, it’s inevitable when you are a 12-team league. But it won’t be THESE TWO TEAMS.

Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said it best during the post-game press conference when asked about where Minnesota goes from here.

“It’s clear that we’re headed for changes…we’re a team that’s been together for eight years,” Reeve said. “You can’t just keep going; all good things come to an end.”

Reeve is right. With the loss, we saw the end of Lindsay Whalen’s storied career, as she had announced her retirement last week. And as of right now, three of the Lynx’ most vital players (Rebekkah Brunson, Sylvia Fowles, and Maya Moore) is going to enter the free agent market once the off-season begins. It’s safe to say that Minnesota will do everything they can to ensure that Moore will stay, and the same for Fowles.

Brunson, Moore, Augustus

However, for Brunson, she’ll most likely be looking at her life after basketball. At 36, she is the second-oldest active player in the league (only behind Seattle’s Sue Bird) and is the league’s all-time rebounding leader. To give perspective, Brunson is the only player left in the WNBA from the 2005 Sacramento Monarchs’ championship team. In her career, she is the only player in league history to win five WNBA titles and was an unquestioned leader on a team that has been one of the league’s bright spots since the turn of the decade.

The Sparks are in a similar position, except with only one of their main stars. Chelsea Gray, the hero of Tuesday night’s game, is set to be a free agent after this season, as are Alana Beard, Essence Carson, and Riquna Williams. While losing the latter three would hurt the team’s already paper-thin depth, losing Gray would arguably be the proverbial knife in the back.

Since coming to the Sparks from Connecticut in 2016, Gray has been a jack-of-all-trades for Los Angeles. While her 2016 season wasn’t much to talk about, it has been the last two seasons where she has proved her worth. Last season she led the league in 3-point field goal percentage (48.2) while finishing sixth in assists per game. This season, Gray finished sixth in both assists and steals per game, while finishing third again on the Sparks in the points category. Speaking of…

2) CAN WE NAME A POST-SEASON AWARD AFTER CHELSEA GRAY?

Someone in the WNBA league office needs to make this happen as soon as possible.

Gray, who has a tendency to shine when the Sparks need her most, scored 11 of her 26 points in the second quarter and took the wind out of the Lynx’s sails. Over the last two seasons, Gray has averaged nearly 12 points a game, while putting up almost five assists per game. And against the Lynx, her game steps up to an entirely different level.

In the finals last season, she averaged 15.8 points, 6.8 assists, and 2.6 rebounds. And when she wasn’t hitting clutch points, it was Gray’s lock-down defense that kept the Lynx from getting easy buckets. Tuesday night was no different, as she also had six assists and five rebounds to go with her methodical scoring method.

It is possible to say that the Sparks wouldn’t have had the same success the last two years without her efforts, and it’s a surprise that they haven’t already tried to re-sign her. Because for the Sparks, Gray is “Miss Clutch”.

3) WILL IT BE LIGHTS OUT FOR LOS ANGELES?

The regular-season series between the Sparks and their second-round hosts, the Washington Mystics, was not kind to Los Angeles.

The Sparks lost the season series 2-1, though the one win was an 11-point blowout that should have been higher. The last game, a heated match-up from last Friday, came down to a last-second buzzer beater courtesy of Washington’s Natasha Cloud. And while the third-seeded Mystics are coming off a loss in their regular season finale, this is not a team to sleep on.

Candace Parker, Elena Delle Donne, All-Star
Candace Parker drives against Elena Delle Donne

The Mystics, led by All-Star captain Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver, tied a franchise record with 22 wins, while also finishing in the top five in points per game (84.5), three-point percentage (35.8) and free throw percentage (led with 85.8). Delle Donne, an MVP front-runner, finished fourth in the league in free throw percentage with 88.7 percent. Going into Thursday’s second round, single-elimination game, the Mystics have won eight of their last night games and seem to have found the key to beating the Sparks: make the rest of the team try to beat you.

The reason Washington won their last two games against Los Angeles is simple; they kept the ball out of Candace Parker’s hands and forced other players to lead. In their July 7 match-up, Chelsea Gray was the leading scorer while Parker only scored six points; last Friday, Riquna Williams led the team with 14 points. And lest the Sparks forget, they also have to account for their former three-point specialist in Toliver.

All we can say going into Thursday’s game is that both the Mystics and the Sparks will pull no punches in their race for the championship.

Chris Bullock
Chris Bullock
Before joining The Ball Out, Chris Bullock was part of SB Nation's Swish Appeal for nearly three years, covering everything women's basketball. Chris has had the honor of doing live coverage of the WNBA Finals, the NCAA Tournament, and also was given his own column, "The Triple Double". A self-described "foodaholic", Chris lives in the San Diego area with his wife and two daughters, and also hosts his own podcast, "Conscious Cravings", where he speaks about his experience as a mental health advocate.

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