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Sparks vs. Lynx has everything a rivalry needs — and more

The 2018 WNBA Playoffs are opening with fire.

WNBA Finals - Game Four Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The WNBA fast forwards every time the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx share the court. Unicorn bigs, superstar guards, and powerhouse forwards have filled the lanes in back-to-back Finals matchups between these rivals. These teams are strapped with living legends playing out through their primes simultaneously, finding new ways to shock an audience that should know what to expect at this point.

But nobody does.

“Every game that we play,” Lynx star Maya Moore told reporters during a conference call before the 2018 WNBA season tipped off, “it feels like a playoff game... a championship game since 2016. That’s when you know [it’s a real rivalry]... When you play teams and you have a ‘This is a championship game’ kind of a feeling every time you play and it goes back and forth, you can start to sense this is exactly what a rivalry feels like.”

The Sparks-Lynx rivalry is becoming synonymous with other all-time great matchups because it’s close and dramatic as hell. Whether it’s Moore hitting runners in the clutch, Nneka Ogwumike fading away on a buzzer-beater, Candace Parker running the floor or Sylvia Fowles barreling over bigs in the post, these teams find new ways to fight with each meeting. (Sometimes that means Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve will call Ogwumike a flopper while mic’d up.)

No game or series between these franchises is ever decided until the final possible buzzer, and that’s why Tuesday’s single-elimination first-round playoff game at 10:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2 is so exciting.

Minnesota hasn’t had the best season, but always shows up when it matters most. So does Los Angeles. This one should be a barnburner. It would be hard to expect anything less.

The Sparks and Lynx can’t stop playing exhilaratingly close games

The Sparks won the 2016 Finals in a decisive Game 5 on a buzzer-beater from their MVP, Ogwumike. The total points in that series was: Lynx 391, Sparks 386.

The Lynx answered by winning the 2017 Finals in a decisive Game 5 after a clutch Moore floater. The total points in that series was: Lynx 383, Sparks 373.

With four one-possession finishes in 10 Finals games, including two buzzer-beaters, these teams and their fans only know close, exciting, theatrical basketball.

Then there was the season opener that added “salt to the wound.”

The season opener added more drama when the Lynx were awarded their championship rings in front of mostly the same Sparks team they beat in the final seconds of last year’s WNBA Finals. It’s was the perfect jumpstart to the season fans craved around the league.

“I think it adds salt to the wound a little bit,” Parker said during a media conference call before the game. “The first time we’re on the court not only do we have to play them, but we have to hear when they get the rings. It adds salt, it adds motivation. L.A.’s not going to make up that night, if we win or lose by 30, we won’t win a championship. The season is a process, it’s a grind.”

The Sparks added a former All-Star with a championship pedigree in Cappie Pondexter. Meanwhile, the Lynx overhauled its entire bench, adding former All-Star Danielle Robinson, Lynetta Kizer and Tanisha Wright. The Sparks, though, didn’t have Parker to begin their season, and the Lynx were fresh off winning it all. This one was supposed to be a blowout, and it seemed like everyone knew it.

But Minnesota got sloppy, turning the ball over 12 times in the first half, and they only took a six-point lead into the third quarter. The Sparks then went on a 14-0 run to take an eight-point lead into the fourth quarter.

That final period had everything: testy fouls, Sylvia Fowles aptly fouling out, and Chelsea Gray running all over the Lynx, with ice in her veins. And it was Gray who diced Minnesota on the game’s final possession to quell their comeback with a game-winning, buzzer-beating layup.

The Lynx-Sparks rivalry is star-powered.

Every game feels like a championship game because the Lynx and Sparks have the most star power in the league — probably ever. They’ll combine to showcase four MVPs this year, and 13 All-Stars. Each team had two of the top-11 scorers in the league last season. The entire Lynx starting five is destined for the Hall of Fame. Moore and Parker may be top-10 players of all time with several years to go before retirement.

Any single player in each team’s starting five can take over any given game, and both squads bring All-Stars who’d be starters anywhere else off the bench.

If you want to win, you want to play under Sparks coach Brian Agler or Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve. They know what they’re doing.

There is nothing like Lynx-Sparks in the WNBA — or the world.

Watch too much Sparks/Lynx and you’re in trouble.

The rest of the league caught up to these two teams in a surprising 2018 season, but never doubt the heart of champions in the playoffs. With inimitable talents all over the court — Parker is a 6’4 big running the floor; Lindsay Whalen is one of the craftiest distributors ever even as she prepares to retire; Seimone Augustus is a mid-range savant; Ogwumike is one of the quickest cutters and most precise finishers ever; Fowles can body in the post like no other — it’s no wonder that this rivalry offers something one of a kind.

It’s also no wonder that it creates an atmosphere even the players know is special.

I’ve played in the Olympics, I played in Russia, in China, in Turkey, I played in Brazil,” Parker said during the media conference call. “When you walk out to a screaming arena — I think I’ve only done that once with Tennessee and UConn — that was the rivalry that I ran out into 24,000 screaming fans. When you do that in the WNBA, I think that’s one of those moments where you take it all in you’re like ‘This is special.’ How many times do you get to play for a championship in front of that many people?”

Now, all the chips are on the table

The Lynx and Sparks played each other for a championship the last two seasons. Now, one of the league’s premier teams will be eliminated in the first round by their most bitter rival in the sport.

You can’t write a script any better than that, and Tuesday night’s game should have the same passion and emotion as Game 5 of last year’s WNBA Finals. It’ll also be some damn good basketball being played. Someone has to go home, but it’ll be exciting watching this one play out.