Commentary

Dream, Lynx on verge of first title

Originally Published: October 2, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Erika de SouzaScott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty ImagesAtlanta's Erika de Souza, fulfilling a commitment to the Brazilian national team, will miss Game 1.

The Atlanta Dream already have beaten the odds as a pro sports franchise in terms of expansion-team success coming quickly. But can they reverse the overwhelming trend in the WNBA of the team with home-court advantage in the Finals winning the title?

The first league crown in 1997 was decided by a single-game championship as Houston won at home. The next seven titles were won in best-of-three series. The subsequent six have been best-of-five, which is the format in which the Dream face off in Game 1 against Minnesota on Sunday (ESPN2, 8:30 p.m. ET) at the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis.

Only once has a team that didn't have the home-court edge in the WNBA Finals prevailed: 2007, when Phoenix won 3-2 over Detroit, with the decisive Game 5 in the Motor City.

The Dream are used to running uphill, though; in every playoff series this year and last, Atlanta has been the so-called underdog. In 2010, the Dream were the No. 4 seed from the East, beating No. 1 Washington and No. 2 New York before being swept in the Finals by the overall top team, Seattle.

This year, as the No. 3 seed, the Dream won the East with series victories over No. 2 Connecticut and No. 1 Indiana. Atlanta will again face the regular-season's best team in West champion Minnesota, but Dream point guard Lindsey Harding wouldn't have it any other way.

"When you play, you don't want things to be easy," she said. "You want these games. I want to be able to say, 'Shoot, I'm playing for a championship against a great team.'"

It has been a long time coming for the Lynx, a franchise more known for its mediocrity than its mettle since Minnesota launched its expansion team in the 1999 season.

A lot of dominoes finally fell right to get the Lynx where they are now. Other franchises going through difficult times inadvertently helped Minnesota. The folding of the Sacramento Monarchs brought starter Rebekkah Brunson in an expansion draft before the 2009 season.

Then coach Cheryl Reeve took over the Lynx in 2010 after the team for which she'd been an assistant, Detroit, moved to Tulsa.

The Lynx also benefited from the standard draft; two No. 1 picks, Seimone Augustus (2006) and Maya Moore (2011) are experiencing their first WNBA Finals together.

If no one ever has seen a WNBA game, this is the series to watch. I know in Atlanta there are some of the most athletic people I have ever been around. And Minnesota has great athletes, too. It's going to be hard to play against them … but a lot of fun, too.

-- Atlanta's Lindsey Harding

"I'm glad it didn't take as long for Maya as it did for me," Augustus said, and in this case that wasn't a quip. It really has been a long road for Augustus -- through injury, illness and a dearth of scoring options around her -- to get to the league's showcase event.

The Dream beat a team with a very strong MVP candidate, Connecticut's Tina Charles, in the first round. In the Eastern Conference finals, Atlanta topped the team that had the MVP award winner: Indiana's Tamika Catchings. Now the Dream will face a squad that has two players who got a lot of MVP consideration: Augustus and Lindsay Whalen.

"Lindsay has such poise about her, and we have so much confidence in her," Moore said. "She's one of our emotional leaders as well. She's got a pretty laid-back personality, but when she gets going, we all want to do it for her.

"It's a really good situation where you have veterans you'd want to do anything for, because they do so much for us. She and Seimone were phenomenal for us as far as stepping up and making big plays."

Dream assistant Carol Ross is the defensive guru on Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors' bench, and she smiled ruefully at the prospect of strategizing against Augustus all grown up. When Ross was still head coach at Mississippi, she had to try to stop the collegian superstar Augustus at LSU.

"I doubt I'll have much more success with that at the pro level than I did at the college level," Ross said, smiling. "She's been terrific. Somehow, you're just trying to find a way to get her out of rhythm. Which is hard to do. But we played them so early [in the season] … we have to see exactly the beast we'll have to deal with in playing them now."

The Lynx were tough enough in June, when they won their back-to-back games against the Dream by 11 and 13 points.

"Tough" was the word that Reeve said again and again after Minnesota didn't give Phoenix much of a whiff of an opening in the Lynx's Western Conference finals sweep of the Mercury.

The Dream, though, have shown that same quality to get to the Finals for a second straight year. Key players, including leading scorer Angel McCoughtry, have dealt with injuries. Atlanta got its two series-winning victories over Indiana without regular starting center Erika de Souza, who is with the Brazilian national team and will miss the Finals opener as well.

"You're measured by how you handle adversity, and this team has had a lot of it," Ross said. "Sometimes we've wallowed in it and not handled it very well, but we've always moved forward, learning a lesson. We've always become better because of a bad experience."

Seattle swept Atlanta last year in three close games. Minnesota has the ability to do the same, but the Dream hope that what was learned in 2010 pays off and they give the Lynx quite a battle. One player who wasn't with Atlanta last year thinks this series has the potential to be highly entertaining.

"If no one ever has seen a WNBA game, this is the series to watch," Harding said. "I know in Atlanta there are some of the most athletic people I have ever been around. And Minnesota has great athletes, too. It's going to be hard to play against them … but a lot of fun, too."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.