- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Minnesota is the favorite to prevail in the WNBA Finals, which begin Sunday at Minneapolis' Target Center (ESPN and WatchESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET).
In 2011, the Lynx swept the Dream to win Minnesota's first WNBA title. The Lynx were upset on the way to a repeat last year, falling in four games to Indiana. Which is probably the worst thing that could have happened from the Dream's perspective.
Atlanta knows that the Lynx are still unhappy about the title getting away from them last year, and that Minnesota's concentration will be very keen this year to keep that from happening again.
But Minnesota also has -- at least on paper -- a talent edge overall against the Dream. That said, the teams split their regular-season meetings this year, both winning on their home court.
Atlanta has been impressive in the playoffs, coming back from a 1-0 deficit to defeat Washington and then sweeping the defending champion Fever. But this is a very tall order for the Dream, because in the matchups all over the court, it's hard to pick against the Lynx, who had the best record in the regular season (26-8) and swept both their playoff series.
In her 10th year in the league, Lindsay Whalen has had as good a season as she has ever had. She's a point guard with a lot of tools to work with. But in the times when Minnesota has needed her to be an elite scorer along with her distribution excellence, she has been able to put up points. She took the 3-pointer out of her repertoire this season – she has made just one trey -- but got back to the foul line more than she had the previous two years. Whalen penetrating is Minnesota at its best.
Her starting counterpart at point guard for Atlanta, Jasmine Thomas, is in just her third season in the WNBA and first with the Dream. Thomas is not that much of 3-point shooter (she made 16 in the regular season, none in the playoffs) and she doesn't get to the line like Whalen does. But she's a good, quick defender and fits well into the Dream's system, which tries to force turnovers and get transition points whenever possible.
At shooting guard, the Lynx have one of the perennial best scorers in the league in Seimone Augustus. She had the fewest 3-pointers (20) she has had in a full season since 2008. But essentially, she was the same consistent threat that she had been in the two previous seasons that the Lynx went to the WNBA Finals.
Armintie Herrington isn't the scoring machine that Augustus is; she has never averaged in double figures in her WNBA career. But that's not her role; she is a strong defender, a reliable cog on offense, and a leader in the locker room.
Thomas and Herrington have worked well in their first season playing together, and deserve credit for helping the Dream find their best in the playoffs. But Whalen and Augustus are Olympians and All-Stars.
Maya Moore really knows how to finish out a season. Going back to her freshman year at UConn in 2008, she has played in four Final Fours and now will be appearing in her third WNBA Finals. So every year, she has put herself in position to win a championship. Moore led the Lynx in scoring during the regular season (18.5 ppg) and has increased her average to 21.5 during the playoffs. She has never missed a Lynx game since being drafted No. 1 in 2011.
Her 2012 Olympic teammate, Atlanta's Angel McCoughtry, was the regular-season scoring-average leader (21.5) for the second year in a row and had her career high in assists (146) this season. She also had a career-best 89 steals, and she has been versatile in the Dream's starting lineup. With Sancho Lyttle missing most of the season and Le'coe Willingham out more recently (she has appeared in just one playoff game), McCoughtry has had to fill in more at the power forward position. She is big enough and quick enough to guard all types of foes. It's impossible to see the Dream making the postseason without McCoughtry.
Atlanta's Tiffany Hayes is a guard, so why are we mentioning her here? With the injuries to Lyttle and Willingham, Hayes has had to play bigger in the Dream's small lineup. Hayes had knee-injury issues that limited her to 23 games in the regular season, but she still averaged 11.3 points. Hayes started just four games in the regular season, but has started all five in the playoffs. Her 23 points were a critical part of the Dream's victory over Indiana in the opener of the Eastern Conference finals.
Rebekkah Brunson pretty much defines consistency at the "4" spot for the Lynx. She has averaged 8.9 rebounds each of the past three seasons, and her scoring average was similar in that stretch, too: 10.2, 11.4, 10.6. The Lynx have known exactly what they will get game in and game out from Brunson all four of her years with the franchise.
At center, Atlanta's Erika de Souza has had the best season statistically of her WNBA career (12.9 ppg, 9.9 rpg in regular season). Emotionally, she is one of the sparkplugs for the Dream. Minnesota's Janel McCarville returned to the WNBA this season for the first time since 2010, when she was with New York. Back in the town where she starred with Whalen in college, McCarville is a role player as a starter, and she was just what the Lynx needed inside after the departure of Taj McWilliams-Franklin.
Moore and McCoughtry are the superstars; de Souza is the best center in this series. The Dream have two All-Stars in McCoughtry and de Souza, but the Lynx are still stronger overall in the front court.
Minnesota was disappointed that guard Monica Wright didn't get the sixth player of the year award, but she was in the running. Wright has improved everything from a pretty good performance in 2012; she averaged 9.0 points in the regular season and is at 7.3 in the playoffs. Post player Devereaux Peters is the only other Lynx reserve who averaged in double figures in minutes played; she contributed 4.1 points and 4.6 rebounds during the regular season, and 4.0 and 3.0 so far in the playoffs.
Rookie guard Alex Bentley was the Dream's top 3-point shooter in the regular season (28) and she also had 95 assists to just 39 turnovers. Post player Aneika Henry has been a solid pickup for the Dream the past two seasons. This year, she averaged 3.9 points and 3.9 rebounds in the regular season, and is at 4.8 and 6.2 in the playoffs.
The Lynx really have not had to rely much on their bench this season, because their starters have been very good and durable. But especially with Wright, they have a real weapon they can bring in.
Atlanta's Fred Williams gets kudos for taking the Dream to the playoffs for the fifth season in a row, and his second as head coach. He had to move up from an assistant's role at the end of August 2012 when Marynell Meadors was let go. He had to establish himself as being "in charge." He was able to be a disciplinarian without overly ruffling feathers, and he has helped his team adjust to a new point guard and to the injuries that altered their lineup.
Minnesota's Cheryl Reeve is in her third consecutive WNBA Finals and going for her second title. When the Lynx hit a few semi-rough spots (relatively speaking) this season, she was able to quickly get them back on track. She has a very talented team, but they also respect what she tells them.
Williams has been coaching basketball a long time (going back to the early 1980s), so experience in general is a strength for him. But Reeve has more specific experience in the WNBA Finals as an assistant and a head coach.
Atlanta has been impressive in the playoffs. But when it comes to the matchups all over the court in the WNBA Finals, it’s hard to pick against Minnesota.