- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Minnesota is the team to beat in the WNBA playoffs again? Gee, this is getting repetitive. But to the chagrin of the Lynx, they are not actually going for a repeat. Which would, in fact, be a three-peat.
That is, if the Lynx had fulfilled their favorite status in 2012 and won the league championship, as they did in 2011. Instead, last year the Lynx lost 3-1 in the WNBA Finals to Indiana.
That further solidified a Fever franchise that was considered to be on shaky ground going into the 2009 season, but was greatly boosted by a trip to the Finals that year. The Indianapolis Star recently reported that the Fever -- thanks to increased sponsor and fan interest lifted even more by the franchise's first title last year -- turned a profit this season.
So the Lynx, disappointed as they were to fall short in 2012, can perhaps take some solace in knowing their loss actually did the league, as a whole, good by spreading the title wealth to another team. But enough magnanimity; Minnesota really wants the championship back in 2013.
For the third year in a row, the Lynx finished atop the Western Conference and have the league's best record; they were 27-7 in 2011 and '12, and 26-8 this season. For that kind of consistency, you can look to coach Cheryl Reeve and the team's "Big Four," who've been starters all three seasons: Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore and Rebekkah Brunson.
A league MVP might come out of that group with Moore, although she has a lot of strong challengers for that honor. Including two from Minnesota's counterpart atop the Eastern Conference: Chicago.
As familiar as the playoffs now feel for the Lynx, this is all new for the Sky. Chicago Sky's first seven years went by without an appearance in the playoffs, but the luck of the lottery for the 2013 draft worked out perfectly for them.
They had the No. 2 pick, but a No. 1-caliber player was still available: Elena Delle Donne. It was the perfect fit. She was exactly what the Sky needed, position-wise, and she quickly developed an affinity for Chicago.
Delle Donne seems a lock for rookie of the year, with both she and center Sylvia Fowles receiving MVP consideration. Those two combined with guard Epiphanny Prince to lead Chicago to a 24-10 mark, seven games ahead of East No. 2 seed Atlanta and No. 3 seed Washington, which both finished 17-17 and will meet in the first round.
The Sky, meanwhile, will take on the Fever, a team that -- even by the WNBA's standards – was clobbered by injuries this year. Yet Indiana still found a way to make the franchise's ninth consecutive postseason appearance. And one of the players lost for most of the season because of injury, veteran Katie Douglas, just returned to the Fever lineup Sept. 13. She had last played May 31.
Of course, one of the key storylines in last year's playoffs was the ankle injury Douglas suffered early in Game 3 in the Eastern Conference finals, which kept her out the rest of the postseason. The Fever were able to win the WNBA title without Douglas on the floor in Finals, but very likely would not have been in that position without what she did throughout the regular season.
This year, it's sort of the opposite: The Fever barely had Douglas in the regular season but hope she can be a spark in the playoffs. Indiana won its season series with Chicago 3-1, and the Fever as a franchise have a big advantage in playoff experience.
As for the Dream-Mystics series, Atlanta lost post player Sancho Lyttle to injury in early July after she'd appeared in just six games, but the Dream are still making their fifth consecutive playoff appearance. MVP candidate Angel McCoughtry, who finished the regular season as the league's leading scorer (22.0 ppg), and center Erika de Souza (12.9 ppg, 9.9 rpg) successfully carried big loads for the Dream, but the team doesn't come into the playoffs on a high note.
The Dream lost their final four games, and eight of their past 11. That stands in contrast to the start of the season, when Atlanta won 10 of its first 11.
The Atlanta-Washington matchup is a repeat of the last time the Mystics were in the postseason, in 2010. Washington lost that series to the Dream, and subsequently had a coaching change, followed by a combined record of 11-57 the last two seasons. Now with coach Mike Thibault in his first season in D.C., the Mystics are back in the playoffs.
Also returning to the postseason is Phoenix, which has had quite an eventful last 12 months. The Mercury finished 2012 with the worst record in the league -- at 7-27 -- and got some heat from WNBA fans who thought Phoenix wasn't going full-bore, in hopes of attaining a lottery pick.
Then the Mercury indeed won the lottery, and drafted center Brittney Griner. She has had a good season when healthy (12.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg), but Phoenix ran into enough rough patches to cost coach Corey Gaines his job in early August. He was replaced by Russ Pennell, who has tried to make Phoenix a stronger defensive team.
Defense is what Los Angeles coach Carol Ross prides herself on, but the Sparks' offense has been very good too: Their 81.9 points per game was second in the league. The Sparks -- led by another MVP candidate, Candace Parker -- want a shot again at Minnesota, which beat L.A. in the 2012 Western Conference finals. But L.A. will have to get past Phoenix first.
As for the Lynx, they did everything well again this year. They led the league in scoring at 82.9 ppg and had only one real speed bump: a stretch in August when they lost three in a row and four of five. In nearly a month since, Minnesota's only loss was by one point at Los Angeles last Thursday -- its lone defeat in its last eight games.
The Lynx went 4-0 this season against their first-round foe, Seattle, but the Storm have to be proud about being in the playoffs for the 10th consecutive time. Seattle did that without Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird, who both missed the season recovering from health issues. The Storm instead got a great final year from Tina Thompson, the future Hall of Famer who is retiring at season's end.
Minnesota has home-court advantage throughout its stay in the postseason, which the Lynx hope will extend about a month and end with another parade in Minneapolis.
Sure, they'd love to be going for three in a row. But two out of three certainly wouldn't be bad.