- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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How big a favorite is Minnesota to repeat as WNBA champion? Let's put it this way: After finishing first in the Western Conference again with the league's best record, the Lynx are very, very hard to pick against.
With two MVP candidates in Olympians Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus, a third London Games gold medalist in point guard Lindsay Whalen, an experienced front line and a bench that understands and fulfills its role there isn't a weak spot to attack when facing Minnesota.
And history leans toward the Lynx in this way: The team with the best regular-season mark has won nine of the 15 previous WNBA championships, including for the past three years.
As for a true dark horse taking the title? That really hasn't happened. Five of the other six champions either had the second best record or tied for it. Only one WNBA champion -- Detroit in 2006 -- took the title after compiling the third best record.
As they did last year, the Lynx in 2012 finished 27-7, two games better than Eastern Conference first-place team Connecticut (25-9). The Lynx have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, and they are 16-1 at the Target Center this year.
Admittedly, Minnesota has lost three times in September, including a 99-84 defeat Sunday at San Antonio to conclude the regular season. But considering how in control the Lynx have seemed since the season resumed in August following the Olympic Summer Games, the losses seem more like fairly inconsequential hiccups than danger signs.
That said, coach Cheryl Reeve has been vigilant all season about making sure the Lynx weren't losing their edge. There's no way to replicate the same hunger as last year, when Minnesota ended the frustration of a beleaguered franchise. But the Lynx have a different kind of motivation this year, because repeating would put them on rare WNBA ground, too.
The now-defunct Houston Comets won the WNBA's first four titles, and Los Angeles took the next two. But since the Sparks' 2001-'02 championships, no WNBA team has repeated as champion.
For Minnesota to do it a decade later might require going through the Sparks, but first things first: The Lynx open the playoffs against Seattle. The Storm competitively have been all over the map this season, in large part because stalwart Lauren Jackson wasn't with the team until after the Olympics.
The Storm started this season 1-7, and have had two four-game losing streaks. They are 5-4 in September. Seattle finished 16-18, although that was still very comfortably ahead of fifth-place Tulsa, which will join Phoenix, Washington and Chicago in the draft lottery Wednesday ("SportsCenter," 6 p.m. ET).
But could Seattle push Minnesota in the first round? It's possible, because when the Storm have clicked this season, they've been a good team. When they haven't, though, they've been offensively stagnant.
Seattle averaged 71.2 points, second-to-last in the league. Only woeful Washington, which had the worst record in the WNBA this season (5-29), averaged fewer points (68.6) than the Storm. Which means for Seattle to have a chance against Minnesota, which averaged a league-best 86 points, the Storm must dictate the pace.
That's especially difficult to do against Minnesota because the Lynx have so many methods of beating teams. Including Moore, who has been very good all season but has had a sizzling September in which she has averaged 19.0 points and 7.0 rebounds in nine games.
If Minnesota-Seattle seems like an uphill battle for the Storm, the other Western Conference semifinal appears to be more evenly matched. Los Angeles, which finished second in the West at 24-10, takes on third-place San Antonio, which finished 21-13.
Both the Sparks and the Silver Stars finished the regular season with victories over Minnesota; L.A. did it Thursday and San Antonio on Sunday. The quirks of the WNBA schedule gave the Sparks a rest; they concluded their season earlier than the other 11 teams, which finished over the weekend.
Both San Antonio (12 in a row) and Los Angeles (nine in a row) have had significant winning streaks this season. But they've also had their lulls since the Olympic break, with the Silver Stars losing five straight at one point and the Sparks losing four of five.
San Antonio won the season series with L.A. 3-1, but those three victories were all in June. In their only post-Olympics matchup, the Sparks dominated the Silver Stars in a 101-77 victory in L.A. on Aug. 23.
L.A. and San Antonio last met in the playoffs in 2008, when the Sparks' Candace Parker was both MVP and rookie of the year. The Silver Stars won their Western Conference finals series 2-1 after a season-saving buzzer-beater by Sophia Young in Game 2 that's still one of the WNBA's all-time highlights.
The Sparks, who'd won the opening game of that series and were 1.7 seconds away from heading to the WNBA Finals, then lost in the West finals again in 2009. In 2010, they fell in the first round, and they didn't make the playoffs last year. That put L.A. in the lottery, which turned out exceptionally well as the Sparks got the No. 1 pick of the 2012 draft, Stanford forward Nneka Ogwumike.
Having averaged 14.0 points and 7.5 rebounds, Ogwumike is a lock to be the league's rookie of the year, joining Parker as the only L.A. players to earn that honor. Another likely award-winner is guard Kristi Toliver, who's a strong favorite for most improved player after leading the Sparks in scoring (17.5 ppg) and assists (4.9).
For her part, Parker is an MVP candidate, averaging 17.4 points and 9.7 rebounds, while leading the league in blocked shots with 76.
If there were a comeback player of the year award, it would go to guard Alana Beard, who came to the Sparks as a free agent from Washington after missing the past two seasons with ankle issues. Beard was very durable and productive this season, averaging 30.8 minutes, 11.4 points and 3.3 assists in 33 games.
If there's a sentimental favorite team from the West, though, it's probably San Antonio. Many fans would enjoy seeing Becky Hammon and Young -- who are in their sixth season together as the heart of the Silver Stars -- get their first WNBA title.
Meanwhile in the East, Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas are another duo who are also fan favorites in regard to finally getting a league championship. The Indiana stars, who have been teammates for five seasons, both turned 33 years old this year and continue to be two of the best players in the WNBA.
Catchings, who won the regular-season MVP award last year, is in contention again in 2012 after averaging 17.4 points and 7.6 rebounds. Douglas averaged 16.5 points and 3.8 rebounds.
The Fever open the playoffs against Atlanta, the team that beat Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals last year. Indiana has had a no-drama season thus far, while the Dream have had anything but that.
Even so, Atlanta still finished third in the East at 19-15, comfortably making the playoffs for the fourth season in a row. This despite the upheaval on Aug. 27, as the team stood 12-12, when coach and general manager Marynell Meadors was fired after Dream star Angel McCoughtry didn't play for two games in what appeared to be some kind of power struggle.
Assistant coach Fred Williams took over, McCoughtry was suspended two games, and since then the Dream have played pretty well. They've gone 7-3 under Williams, and McCoughtry won the regular-season scoring title at 21.4 points per game.
The Dream might not be the most cohesive unit, but that's nothing new. It hasn't stopped them from making the WNBA Finals the past two years despite finishing fourth in the East in 2010 and third in 2011.
Can Connecticut reach that summit this year? The Sun have one of the front-runners for MVP in center Tina Charles (18 ppg, 10.5 rpg). The 2010 rookie of the year, Charles could become the second player to win an Olympic gold medal, the WNBA MVP and the league championship in the same year. Sheryl Swoopes did that with Team USA and Houston in 2000.
But the Sun actually haven't won a playoff series at all since 2006, and the only player from then who's still with Connecticut is forward Asjha Jones. An Olympian this summer, Jones recently returned to the Sun's lineup after missing 14 games with an Achilles injury.
Along with Charles, the Sun's other consistent sparkplug has been guard Kara Lawson. At age 31, she has had the best season of her WNBA career, averaging 15.1 points and 4.0 assists while making 43 percent of her 3-point attempts (74-of-172).
The Sun open the playoffs against New York, which went just 1-4 against Connecticut this season. The Liberty finished 15-19, beating out 14-20 Chicago for the East's final postseason spot.
There is no team in the Eastern Conference that has actually ever won a WNBA title; the last East team to be champion was the Detroit Shock, who relocated to Tulsa after the 2009 season.
All this summer, more attention has been focused on the Western Conference, with the spotlight particularly on Minnesota's repeat quest. Now, that begins in earnest, and the Lynx know they'll be getting every foe's best shot.
That probably won't matter, though, if the Lynx are at their best, too.
15dBonnie D. Ford