- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Did Minnesota really go from favored to repeat as WNBA champion to questionable to make it to the finals? Or is it just a matter of perception?
You could say that Tuesday in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals, the Lynx came within a missed Lauren Jackson jumper of being bounced from the WNBA playoffs. However, you could also say that Minnesota twice was one missed free throw away from closing out a sweep in Game 2 Sunday at Seattle.
Thursday night at Target Center (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET), the Lynx take the next step in defending their title as they face Los Angeles in the West finals.
Did having to go the distance against the Storm weaken Minnesota's 2012 championship chances? What about Lindsay Whalen's wrist injury? How about the fact that the Sparks -- who finished the regular season a few days before the other WNBA teams and then swept San Antonio in the first round -- have played less basketball in the past two weeks than the Lynx have?
Not surprisingly, both sides downplayed the "rest" factor. Los Angeles coach Carol Ross shrugged when asked if the Sparks benefited from being done with their series earlier.
"I don't know we'll have to see," Ross said. "You'd like to think so, but we had rest before [Game 1 against] San Antonio and didn't look good for a long time. So it doesn't necessarily equate to playing well."
Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said she would be "very disappointed" if fatigue was a factor for her team in the series.
"At this point, you're playing on adrenaline," Reeve said. "The 'fatigue' word is for losers."
Admittedly, there is some concern about how much Lynx point guard Whalen is bothered by the injury to her left (non-shooting) wrist, which forced her out of Game 3 for a while. Whalen, the ultimate stoic, said she would be OK.
"The fact that Lindsay got through [Tuesday's] game for us was so encouraging to me," Reeve said. "I know she's going to be sore, but there's nothing that's going to hold her out."
The look of this series probably will be different than either of the West semifinals because both the Lynx and the Sparks generally are very proficient on offense and prefer games with a greater number of possessions. Fast and furious as opposed to bump and grind.
Reeve said the Sparks are "as good as we are" offensively. She praised the L.A. starting backcourt of Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard, saying both have helped complement superstar post player Candace Parker.
Toliver really spreads out defenses with her range, but also has been a very effective penetrator. Beard, who didn't play the past two WNBA seasons because of ankle issues, has been an even bigger-than-expected boost to the Sparks on both ends of the court.
"The thing that gets overlooked about Toliver, because she shoots the 3 so well, is that she gets to the foul line the most on the team," Reeve said. "So it's a very challenging situation.
"What Alana gives them defensively is so critical to what Carol's trying to do. And I don't see weaknesses in Alana's offense. She's penetrating, she's pulling up for jumpers, she's shooting the 3-ball. I see a calm and confidence about her. There's so many ways she's impacting that team."
That said, the Lynx really don't seem to have had their confidence rattled by the tight series against the Storm.
"I think the expectation is that everything should be easy for us, and it's not," Reeve said. "Seattle was playing really well, and they schemed well defensively."
Last season, Ross was an assistant for Atlanta and was largely responsible for the defensive looks that the Dream used against Minnesota in the WNBA Finals.
"Clearly, I didn't do a great job last year," Ross said, chuckling, in reference to the Lynx winning that series 3-0. "So I better change this up for sure.
"But seriously, you look at not just who you are playing, but where your own team is. Sometimes with adjustments -- even though they might seem obvious or necessary -- you have to know whether making a lot of changes with your team is the best thing to do."
One thing Ross does feel sure about is that the Sparks' chemistry, like that of the Lynx, has been a big part of their success this season. A longtime head coach at the college level with WNBA experience as an assistant, Ross is in her first year running a team in the pro league. The L.A. players have responded well to her, and vice versa.
"They're a lot of fun, which is important to me," Ross said. "Because this job can be a little bit of a grind if you take it too seriously. They're fierce competitors. When you have people who love to compete, you can also have a little fun, because you don't have worry about whether they're going to be ready to go or not."
The Sparks are well-rested. The Lynx, meanwhile, had to gut out a three-game series with Seattle. Will it impact Thursday's Game 1 of the Western Conference finals?