Ready for a point guard showdown?
Lindsey Harding leads Atlanta to face Lindsay Whalen and Minnesota in Game 1 Sunday
We know how popular Lindsay Whalen is in Minnesota. But guess what? She also has an admirer in Atlanta.
"First off, I love Whalen," said her counterpart at point guard for the Dream, Lindsey Harding. "It's going to be pretty cool: Lindsay versus Lindsey. We know each other very well from playing against each other [in the WNBA] and together in USA Basketball.
"She's very tough to guard, very strong. She's leading that team extremely well. She does a great job in transition and getting to the basket. It's going to be a hard matchup for me: I've got to be ready to play."
No doubt Whalen would say the same thing about facing Harding, who is in her first season with the Dream. They will both be at the steering wheel when their teams face off in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Sunday (8:30 p.m. ET) at Target Center in Minneapolis.
This is Whalen's third trip to the Finals; she went twice while with Connecticut in 2004 and '05. For Harding, the former Duke standout who was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2007 draft and played the first two seasons of her WNBA career with the Lynx, this experience is new at the pro level.
"I'm so excited to have this opportunity to play for a championship," Harding said. "I haven't done that since college. How many people get the chance to go to a Final Four? Then professionally, how many get a chance to play in the Finals? I'm cherishing every single moment, because I know how valuable it is. It can disappear in a second."
She wasn't necessarily referring to the concept of team stability, although she could have been. Because that's what happened to the Washington Mystics team that Harding played for in 2009 and '10: The stability "rug" was suddenly yanked away.
The Mystics finished first in the East last season. And despite a first-round playoff loss to Atlanta, it appeared the franchise was very much on the right track after two postseason appearances in a row. Then both general manager Angela Taylor and coach Julie Plank were out the door as Mystics ownership decided to downsize.
Harding takes a more charitable stance toward the Mystics' brass about what happened than a lot of fed-up Mystics fans do, but she acknowledges she wanted to be traded to Atlanta.
"It was a bit of a shock to me -- all the changes in D.C.," Harding said. "I don't understand the business side of it; I don't know what the deal was. You have to trust management to let them make those decisions, and I was a little shocked. Because it was two of the best seasons D.C. had had.
"So when I had the opportunity to play in Atlanta, it wasn't just because I had family here. I wanted to be with this team. I'm in my fifth season, and I don't want to be a player who never has the opportunity to play for a championship and conceivably win. I thought with Atlanta I could. And we're here."
So are the Lynx, who lost their only two previous playoff series (in 2003 and '04) before finishing with the league's best record this year and surging toward the Finals.
In 2007, with Whalen then ensconced in Connecticut, the Lynx made a draft-day deal to get Harding after Phoenix had picked her first. She got off to a great start before her rookie year was cut short by a knee injury. After playing a partial season in 2008, she was traded in early 2009 from Minnesota to Washington.
The Lynx got two 2009 draft picks in return, with which they selected Quanitra Hollingsworth and Rashanda McCants. Hollingsworth was traded to New York earlier this year and spent the season with the Liberty; McCants didn't play in the WNBA this summer.
So the deal paid off for Washington, and Harding felt she grew there as a point guard but is continuing to do so.
"I feel like, especially this season, I've stepped forward," Harding said. "The last two seasons in D.C. were great in helping me. But this season -- I don't remember a certain game, but it was early -- even when we were losing, something just kind of clicked. I think it has to do with the chemistry on this team."
Whalen coming home to Minnesota via trade with Connecticut was one of the biggest stories of 2010 in the WNBA. The Lynx didn't do as well as they hoped last year, but did set the groundwork for how good 2011 has been. And Whalen also mentioned the word "chemistry."
"All of us who were on the team here last year -- missing the playoffs and having that disappointment -- the way we've been able to come back this year and play together, that's all been really satisfying for us," Whalen said. "It's chemistry: On and off the floor, we get along well together. We all have a lot of trust in each other."
As they entered the WNBA -- Whalen is three years older -- you could make the generalizations that Whalen's biggest challenge was to improve defensively and Harding's was to become more consistent offensively.
Both have definitely met those challenges head-on. Whalen averaged 13.6 points and a league-best 5.9 assists this season, while Harding was at 10.5 and 4.8. Harding's numbers are up in the postseason (15.2 and 5.6), while Whalen's are a bit down (12.2, 3.8). But both have been doing exactly what's needed of them in the playoffs.
"You're talking about an exceptional point guard in the sense of understanding not just season to season but night to night -- and even quarter to quarter -- what her team needs from her," said Connecticut coach Mike Thibault of his former player Whalen. "Each season she's gotten better at grasping when her team needs her to score versus pass.
"And she's improved her defense tremendously over the course of her career. She's not the quickest player on the court defensively, but she's learned angles and how to use her body and her strength. She's such a good weakside defender; she sees passing lanes to get steals. She kind of knows that they're in a moment right now where they've got exceptional talent, and this is a great opportunity for her."
Harding senses the same thing about her Atlanta team. This is the Dream's second consecutive year in the WNBA Finals, and they were overmatched at point guard last year by Sue Bird as Seattle swept the series.
Atlanta post player Sancho Lyttle said that Harding gives the rest of the Dream players more options because of her ability to get into the lane (something Whalen does very well, too).
"Lindsey can get in the paint and score," Lyttle said. "She knows when it's time for us to penetrate, and she can take the game over. Last year and this year are different scenarios; the impact of one player can change things."
Harding sees herself coming full circle to some degree: playing in her first Finals against the team with which she started her WNBA career.
"The city is awesome, I love it," Harding said of Minneapolis. "The team -- people like Seimone that are still there, I'm so proud of them. It is interesting to be playing them, but nothing bad.
"I think it's awesome. You have a team like Atlanta that's only four years old, and you have Minnesota, whose owners and fans have stuck with that team for so long. It's going to be a great series."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
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