Sparks, Lynx renew rivalry to kick off season

The WNBA wasted little time getting to its marquee matchup.

Seven months after playing their second straight five-game WNBA Finals, the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks kick off their 2018 seasons on Sunday at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

In 2017, it was the Lynx who turned the tables on their arch-rival, defeating the defending-champion Sparks to win a second title in three years.

In what has turned into the WNBA’s best rivalry, the teams have split their last 10 Finals meetings and their last 16 games overall.

“This has probably gone to a level I have not seen,” Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve, a 17-year WNBA veteran, said of the rivalry.

“This has been awesome for women’s basketball,” Lynx guard Seimone Augustus agreed, according to the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune. “A lot of eyes have been on the games. The way the playoffs have gone down, it’s epic. And it was needed. People needed to see great basketball being played.”

The Minnesota starting five, led by its two MVPs, Maya Moore (2014) and Sylvia Fowles (2017), is unchanged from last season but the bench looks quite different.

Reserve forward Plenette Pierson, a key role player off the bench, retired after last season. Natasha Howard was traded to Seattle for a second-round draft pick, and Renee Montgomery left in free agency.

The Lynx signed defensive stopper Tanisha Wright, a 12-year veteran who returned to the league after a one-year retirement, and acquired three-time All-Star selection Danielle Robinson from Phoenix for a first-round pick.

Playing point guard for the Lynx will be Lindsey Whalen’s day job this season. Whalen has taken over as head coach of her alma mater, the University of Minnesota. She plans to play at least one more season with the Lynx.

The Lynx-Sparks rivalry gets a little extra heat on Sunday.

The Lynx will unveil their 2017 championship banners with the Los Angeles players looking on.

“I think it definitely adds salt to the wound a little bit,” Sparks star Candace Parker said via conference call with the Twin Cities media. “The last time we were on the court, not only do we have to play them, but we have to hear when they get their rings. I think it definitely adds salt, it adds motivation.”

Minnesota forward Rebekkah Brunson, unsurprisingly, sees things differently.

“I think it’ll be a great atmosphere and I think it’s going to be an amazing game for the league and the fans,” Brunson said. “We’ve always had this rivalry. Every game that we play against each other is important to both teams. It’s going to be great after winning at Williams (Arena) last year to come back and play them again at home. It’s exciting. I think everybody’s excited for it. The league, the fans, the players.”

The teams have split the past 16 games and the Sparks and Lynx are separated by just three points: the Sparks have scored 1,221 points, the Lynx, 1,218.

Parker, a two-time WNBA MVP, and the rest of the Los Angeles starters, including Nneka Ogwumike, whose last-second shot sunk Minnesota in Game 5 of the 2016 Finals, have returned for 2018.

And they’re hungry for another crown.

“You remember the losses,” Parker said. “I feel like that feeling lives with you, you take it with you, it’s in your stomach and you feel sick. There are a number of shots in my career where I remember where I was, who I was defending, what my first reaction was. Those really stick with you, but I think they kind of push you and motivate you to make sure that you try not to let that happen again.”