As Odyssey Sims was called for an offensive foul midway through the third quarter of the Sparks’ 79-57 victory over the Minnesota Lynx on Thursday night, tensions flared between the two teams.
The crowd at Staples Center erupted in cheers as Maya Moore missed the resulting technical free throw. Seconds later, boos rang out as Candace Parker was called for a foul on a block against Sylvia Fowles.
There wasn’t much proof from the spirit of the players or the fans, but the matchup didn’t mean what it once did for the WNBA standings. The rivalry appeared well and truly alive.
“We definitely don’t like each other very much, “ said Parker, who led the Sparks with 23 points and 10 rebounds. “When you play somebody so many times, that happens.”
Said Nneka Ogwumike: “I wouldn’t say it’s dislike, but it’s passion. We could be playing for the two bottom spots in the league, there’d still be this passion.”
The two teams had built the most heated rivalry in the league, meeting in the WNBA Finals in 2016 and 2017. Each series went to the maximum five games, the Sparks winning the 2016 title thanks to an Ogwumike putback with three seconds remaining.
Thursday’s game was the 25th meeting between the teams in three years, with the Sparks winning 13 of the previous 24 but scoring only six more points in the matchups.
Yet 2018 provided a new angle to the rivalry, as both teams began the game narrowly inside the playoff places and far from the top seeding.
At a point in the season when the Sparks and Lynx typically looked like sure bets for the best two records in the league, the teams sat 41/2 and four games behind the top-seeded Seattle Storm as the game tipped off.
The Storm, behind the scoring of 2015 No. 1 draft pick Jewell Loyd and the defense of her 2016 draft counterpart, Breanna Stewart, alongside the playmaking and experience of 37-year-old point guard Sue Bird, have emerged as the league’s new top team with a 20-7 record.
Meanwhile, the Sparks and Lynx remain two of the eight teams in the race for the seven other playoff spots.
“Standing-wise, it’s not the same, but it doesn’t erase our history and what’s happened the last three years,” Parker said. “That’s huge for us. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing for a championship. We have to get physical.”
Injuries have slowed the Sparks.
Sydney Wiese has played only eight games, while Alana Beard and Ogwumike each sat out games before Sunday’s WNBA All-Star game. Beard and Ogwumike returned to the lineup Thursday, with Beard guarding Moore for most of the game and limiting the former MVP to eight points.
Though Moore provided the game’s opening score, the Sparks quickly dominated. Parker scored 10 points in the game’s opening five minutes, helping her team to a 13-4 lead. The lead never got down to fewer than eight points the rest of the way as the Sparks marched to a comfortable victory, their first at home for a month after five consecutive losses at Staples Center.