Minnesota and Los Angeles remain atop the WNBA for the second season in a row. But on Sunday, both teams lost, showing they do have some vulnerabilities. And now, for the second time this season, they'll try to exploit those in each other.
The reigning WNBA champion Sparks (18-7) visit the Lynx (21-3) on Friday in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Lynx won the first meeting, 88-77, on July 6 at Xcel Energy Center. Their third and final regular-season showdown is Aug. 27 at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Sunday, playing their first game since losing point guard Lindsay Whalen to a hand injury that she sustained on Aug. 3 against Atlanta, the Lynx lost 84-82 at Indiana. It has been a difficult adjustment season for the Fever since Tamika Catchings retired: they are 9-18 and might miss the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
But they had a big night against the Lynx, who got an uncharacteristic off game from leading MVP candidate Sylvia Fowles. She battled foul trouble and had just six points against the Fever, her only single-digit scoring output of this season.
However, Fowles and the Lynx bounced back Tuesday at Atlanta; she had 27 points and 13 rebounds in an 81-72 victory. And while the timetable isn't set, Minnesota believes Whalen will return to action.
"We're going to have Lindsay back, that's the great thing," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve told reporters. "She's going to play again this season. The healing has begun."
The Lynx have been through key injuries before, including losing both Whalen and Seimone Augustus for a stretch during the 2015 season. And Minnesota still managed to win the WNBA title that year, with big contributions from guard Renee Montgomery. She has moved into the starting lineup, and will be key again now, along with veteran reserve guard Jia Perkins.
Meanwhile, the Sparks lost 85-79 at Dallas on Sunday after being outrebounded 47-31. The Sparks haven't played since, so they have had a few days to work on things in practice.
Sunday's losses showed the WNBA's best teams certainly can be defeated. But that's why finishing in the top two spots in the standings is so important: Under the playoff format that was first implemented last year, it means an automatic trip to the best-of-five semifinals. The Lynx and Sparks just want stay out of the single-elimination first and second rounds. Beating them once is one thing, beating them in a series is something very different.
Short of a complete collapse, Minnesota is comfortably in position for the bye into the semifinals. It's a little more tenuous for Los Angeles, which has just a two-game lead over third-place Connecticut (16-9).
With these two matchups left against the Lynx -- plus another road swing with games at New York, Washington and Chicago -- the Sparks have a more difficult path to make sure they keep their bye into the semis -- which makes Friday night another Lynx-Sparks game with high stakes.