The Los Angeles Sparks and the Minnesota Lynx had the defining rivalry of the 2010s. Four straight meetings in the playoffs that the two teams split evenly, back-to-back Finals matchups that each went the distance, oodles of star power and clutch shots galore made every Sparks/Lynx game a must-watch. The WNBA framed its marketing around the two teams and pitted them against each other in season openers. It was the gift that kept on giving.
The rivalry between the two teams was mostly built on a foundation of mutual respect. Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike for L.A. and Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles for Minnesota combined for four of the five league MVPs from 2013-2017; the two teams featured multiple additional All-Stars in Kristi Toliver, Chelsea Gray, Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, and Lindsay Whalen; and they were perennial playoff teams and championship contenders.
An absurd number of their games came down to the wire, not just in the regular season, but also when the stakes were at their highest in the playoffs. Game 5 of the 2016 Finals had four lead-changes in the final 30 seconds from four eventual Hall of Famers in Brunson, Parker, Moore, and Ogwumike, culminating in a second-attempt fadeaway off an offensive rebound that gave the Sparks the win.
A rivalry is at its best when there’s a little bit of animosity, and Sparks/Lynx provided that in spades as well. There were a number of one-off incidents, like Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve calling Ogwumike the “No. 1 flopper in the league,” which just gets more and more ridiculous the longer you think about it. But the undercurrent of all that hatred was a stewing beef between the opposing point guards, Odyssey Sims and Lindsay Whalen.
Whalen was a Minnesota native and started playing for the Lynx in 2010, a fan favorite as a hometown hero who wasn’t afraid to mix it up. Sims didn’t get to Los Angeles until 2017, after the epic clash in the finals the year before, but she stepped right into the rivalry and immediately found her foil in Whalen, who was a full 10 years older but hadn’t lost of any of her fire.
Whalen made her presence felt in the 2017 Finals by leveling Sims in the opening minutes of Game 4. She was fined, and Reeve later told the media that Whalen said it was the best $200 she ever spent. The two teams then had to share the same flight back to Minnesota for Game 5.
Sims and Whalen were back at it in the 2018 season opener, when the Sparks had to watch the Lynx collect their rings from the year before. Sims got the better of this one as Gray won it for the Sparks on a buzzer-beater.
Sims also had some choice words for Whalen after the game, commenting on the older guard’s stamina, or lack thereof (from The Athletic):
“She’s a great player,” Sims said. “She’s a veteran in the league. She’s earned her stripes, but at the end of the day, I’m younger and I do what I do best. I know she doesn’t like pressure. It makes her feel uncomfortable. I knew at halftime she was tired and it showed.... She was on the bench for a little while, honestly, didn’t even know if she was still on the team at one point.”
The two teams met in the first round of the playoffs in 2018, the meeting lacking a little bit of luster coming so early in the postseason. It was, however, the last game of Whalen’s career, and the Staples Center P.A. announcer thanked the Lynx star afterwards for her contributions to the game and the rivalry.
Sims felt slightly less charitable.
It came as no surprise when the Lynx scheduled Whalen’s jersey retirement on June 8, 2019, the Sparks’ lone visit to Minnesota that season. That game would be nationally televised, but that certainly wasn’t the reason the team picked that date.
Four days after the announcement, however, the unthinkable happened: the Sparks traded Sims to the Lynx. Not only would Sims be starting at point guard for Minnesota on the day of Whalen’s jersey retirement, but she showed up to the arena wearing her former nemesis’ uniform.
Wow. Who would’ve ever thought. pic.twitter.com/usJfH9ZrEh— Brady Klopfer (@BradyKlopferNBA) June 8, 2019
L.A. won that matchup on — you guessed it — another Gray clutch shot, helping the Sparks get one last win over Whalen. Alexis Jones, the player who came to Los Angeles in the Sims trade, got her own revenge on Minnesota in the two teams’ next meeting in 2019.
The Lynx have gone through wholesale changes over the last year. Moore stepped away from the game to pursue criminal justice, Brunson retired, and Augustus even made her way to Los Angeles this past offseason. Without all those key players, the Sparks/Lynx games would inevitably lack the same intensity they once did.
But really, it’s the presence of Sims and Whalen on opposing teams that’s missing. The two aggressive guards marked their territory in a rivalry loaded with other stars and fought their own battle within the L.A./Minnesota war. Sims has taken the high road since joining the Lynx and says, “off the court it’s like it never happened.” Those on-court moments between the two won’t soon be forgotten.