Mention the Houston Comets to Maya Moore, and the Lynx forward instantly breaks into a wide smile. "They were my favorite team,'' Moore said Wednesday, after the Lynx's final practice of the season. "Those were the players I looked up to.''
Moore emulated the women who crafted the WNBA's first dynasty as a youth, wearing the same shoes Sheryl Swoopes wore and choosing uniform number 14 in honor of Cynthia Cooper. Though she's all grown up, Moore — and her Lynx teammates — still aspire to be just like those early idols of the women's game. Thursday, with a victory over Los Angeles, they can join the Comets in history as the only teams to win four WNBA championships.
Game 5 of the WNBA Finals will end a series that has been emotional and exhausting for both the Lynx and Sparks. The league's new playoff format was set up to give its top two regular-season teams a path to the Finals, and the parity between the teams has pushed the series to the limit.
"It's a heavyweight fight, Ali vs. Frazier,'' Lynx guard Seimone Augustus said. "It's going to be a battle to the end.''
In addition to winning a fourth title in six seasons, the Lynx also could become the first WNBA team to capture back-to-back crowns since the Sparks in 2001-02. History, though, will be the last thing on their minds Thursday at Target Center. In this unpredictable, topsy-turvy series, players anticipate that Game 5 will be won by the team most able to remain entirely in the moment.
That said, the Lynx allowed themselves to briefly ponder the big picture Wednesday.
"It's really cool to think this group can be part of — and we already are — creating those memories for the next generation,'' said Moore, who is averaging 22.3 points in the postseason. "[The Comets] are a big reason we are who we are right now.
"[Winning a fourth title] is definitely something we talked about. We want to achieve everything we can as a group and squeeze every drop out of this season, out of this time we have together. It's something we knew was out there. Then it's a matter of locking in to what the little details looked like to get that done. Now, we're one step away."
At the beginning of the season, the Lynx set their aim on a fourth title and second in a row. Augustus said coach Cheryl Reeve "laid it all out on the line" on the first day of training camp, explaining the historic implications.
Then, they did not think about it during a regular season in which they went 28-6 for the WNBA's best record. "She said, 'You know what our goal is,' " Augustus recalled. "'You know what history we can make, how we can seal our legacy.' After that, we bottled it up and put it off to the side until we got to this point."
With three days between their stirring Game 4 victory and Thursday's final bow, Augustus said the Lynx talked briefly about their opportunity to make history. She said it is "mind-boggling'' to think about equaling the number of championships won by the Comets, who took the title in each of the league's first four seasons. Again, though, the Lynx recognized that having history on their minds will only cloud their ability to make it.
Neither team has consistently played to its identity in the Finals. The Sparks took Game 1 on Alana Beard's buzzer-beater, then were blown out by 19 points in Game 2. The Lynx stumbled badly in a 17-point loss in Game 3 before following up with Sunday's stouthearted road victory, denying the Sparks the opportunity to lock up the championship on their home court.
Moore said the extreme highs and lows of the series have made it challenging to move on quickly and maintain a firm focus on the next step. She noted that her team "feels it has another level" it can reach, and Reeve expects that will be necessary to win Thursday.
"In Game 4, every possession was absolutely exhausting,'' Reeve said. "That's what the game should look like. I expect more of that in Game 5, pushing one another to the brink of your competitive edge.''
The Sparks are determined to win the franchise's first title since 2002, which would be the first ever for their current generation of stars. Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver had toiled in the league for years without making it to the Finals, and for them, the yearning for one championship is as powerful as the Lynx's desire for four.
Coach Brian Agler said his team won Game 3 because it concentrated solely on the task in front of it. The Lynx won Game 4 for the same reason, he explained, and he got some help in refocusing his team. After Game 4, Sparks owner Magic Johnson — who won five NBA championships with the Lakers — gave the Sparks a pep talk.
"The biggest thing he said was, 'This isn't over,' " Toliver said. "We can win at [Target Center]. We've done it. You just have to believe that."
The Lynx have the luxury of Game 5 experience. Last year at Target Center, they earned their third championship by beating Indiana in a best-of-five series that went the distance. Their core group of Moore, Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson — together for six years and all three titles — also knows how to handle high-pressure scenarios like Game 5 presents.
Swoopes predicted before the finals that the Lynx would match Houston's four championships, in part because they resembled her former team.
"They have great players coming off the bench, great role players, and they're hungry," said Swoopes, part of the Comets' four title teams from 1997-2000. "We won the first [title], then we came back hungrier for the second and the third and the fourth. That's where the Lynx are now. You never want it to end."
Surprising as it sounds, Moore said she will feel a little nervous Thursday. That constant chase for the next prize has a way of causing butterflies, she said. So does the idea of standing next to her idols in history.
"Because of our preparation and how we've approached every game this season, we have the ability to do great things in situations like this,'' Moore said. "Nothing's ever guaranteed. But I think we have enough experience, and that understanding of what it takes to have a game where you have no regrets.
"No matter what happens, we are so proud of this group and what we've done. But to get this close, to give ourselves a chance to do something so great, is exciting."