- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Atlanta guard Lindsey Harding talks about WNBA Finals opponent Minnesota.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Lynx, a WNBA expansion franchise, began play in 1999. It wasn't until this, their 13th season, that the Lynx made it to the league's ultimate showcase, the WNBA Finals.
Meanwhile, Atlanta started its franchise in 2008. It was a very rough first season, as the Dream went 4-30. Yet now Atlanta is in just its fourth season, and already the franchise is making its second WNBA Finals appearance.
And the Dream's mission is the same as it was last year: Beat the team that had the best record in the regular season. Atlanta couldn't do it in 2010, getting swept by Seattle in three very close games. Can the Dream do it this time?
"We've got to find a way," Dream star Angel McCoughtry said Tuesday after Atlanta's 83-67 Game 3 victory over Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals. "We are used to having obstacles in our way, bumps in the road. We're going to keep on driving."
The next obstacle, though, is quite large. The Western Conference champion Lynx were 27-7 during the regular season, beat San Antonio 2-1 in the playoffs' first round, and then decisively swept Phoenix in the conference finals.
"They were the team to beat the whole season," Atlanta's Iziane Castro Marques said of the Lynx. "We have to do our best. And if it's not enough, then OK, they'll deserve to win. But we're going to give our all and try to stop some of the best players in the league."
Indeed, it's a matchup of two very athletic teams with plenty of star power. The Dream's McCoughtry (2009) and the Lynx's Seimone Augustus (2006) are both past No. 1 overall draft picks. Those two and Minnesota point guard Lindsay Whalen were each MVP candidates this season.
Another No. 1 draft pick, Dream point guard Lindsey Harding (2007), will return to Minnesota to face the team she played for to start her WNBA career. And yet another No. 1 selection, Minnesota's Maya Moore -- the league's rookie of the year this season after a brilliant career at UConn -- will have a chance to play again in Georgia, the state where she went to high school.
The Lynx, who will host Game 1 of the Finals Sunday (ESPN2, 8:30 p.m. ET) at Target Center, watched Tuesday to find out their next foe. The Dream defeated an Indiana team that had finished first in the East in the regular season. Both the Dream and Fever had adversity to deal with in Game 3 of the series: Atlanta was again without regular starting center Erika de Souza, and Indiana had a gutsy but hobbled Tamika Catchings, who was named league MVP last week.
Just as they did Sunday in their Game 2 victory in Atlanta -- the first game that de Souza missed as she was called to the Brazilian national team -- the Dream used a smaller and quicker lineup effectively Tuesday against the Fever. Catchings played 24 minutes, finishing with six points and five rebounds.
Meanwhile, Castro Marques put together her two best games of the season to help Atlanta win this series, scoring 30 points Sunday and 23 Tuesday.
"I'm proud of myself in keeping my head on the right track," Castro Marques said of her performance in the playoffs after being disappointed in her play during the regular season. "When I had the chance, I stepped in big and did what I know how to."
Still, she will be glad to see the return of her friend and countrywoman de Souza, who is playing in an Olympic qualifying tournament for Brazil.
"I'm texting her right now," Castro Marques said, laughing in a jubilant Dream locker room. "I said, 'Get your a-- back here. We made it!'"
The Dream started this season 3-9 as McCoughtry, among others, dealt with injuries. And de Souza wasn't the only one called away; Sancho Lyttle had to leave to play for Spain's national team earlier in the summer. Lyttle also had injuries to overcome.
"When I came back, I was more hungry," said Lyttle, who had 10 points and 11 rebounds Tuesday. "I can't even say how happy I am right now to be in this position. Because this is where we wanted to be, and when we first started out this season, it didn't look so great for us."
Meanwhile, it has looked very good from the start for the Lynx. Finally, it has been their breakthrough year.
The franchise hadn't been in the postseason since 2004 and had never won a playoff series. But after more than a decade of mostly disappointment, the stars aligned at last this summer in Minneapolis. With standout rookie Moore and free-agent veteran Taj McWilliams-Franklin joining the Lynx, Minnesota has played consistently well throughout the season.
The Lynx won both regular-season matchups with the Dream, 96-85 and 77-64. But those games were so long ago -- June 17 and 19 -- they almost seem like they happened last season.
McCoughtry led Atlanta on Tuesday with 26 points. During the regular season, she was the league's No. 2 scorer, averaging 21.6 points. Augustus was No. 8 on that list at 16.2 points per game.
"We paid our dues last year, and we know what it takes," McCoughtry said. "But one of the things that makes Minnesota so tough is when they bring their bench in, they don't lose anything. Because they are so good, they have so many great players, and they just keep them coming at you.
"We have to find a way to deal with that. I always thought our adversity this season had to be for a reason. I kept telling myself, 'We're going through this to get somewhere.' I'm glad I was right."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
The WNBA Finals will feature two very athletic teams with plenty of star power. And for the second consecutive season, the team that had the best record in the regular season awaits Atlanta.