Playoffs have wide-open feeling
But for the first time, Minnesota might be labeled the favorite
In the WNBA a year ago, there was a green giant that was anything but jolly to those standing in its path. The strong feeling heading into the postseason then was that the visual of Sue Bird, Lauren Jackson and their Seattle teammates lifting the league trophy would ultimately symbolize last summer for the league.
The success of the Storm indeed ended up being the dominant story of the WNBA in 2010, as they swept through their three playoff series with a 7-0 record and Jackson was named MVP of the league and the finals.
Got any idea of what image will wrap up 2011, the league's 15th season? Actually, you probably have several.
"If you look around, there's probably no team where you say, 'That team can't be beaten in a three-game or five-game series," Phoenix's Diana Taurasi said. "Whoever hits the stretch run playing well is usually the team with the best opportunity."
That makes sense, but Taurasi's Mercury won their two championships in seasons where they entered the playoffs in different ways. In 2007, Phoenix won 11 of its last 12 games before the postseason. In 2009, the Mercury were just 7-5 over their last dozen regular-season games and lost their playoff opener to San Antonio. But both years, Phoenix battled through to win the finals in five games.
And last year, Atlanta made the finals despite having lost six of its last seven entering the playoffs. So momentum might -- or might not -- make a difference in 2011.
"This year has the feeling of being more wide-open in both conferences," said Connecticut coach Mike Thibault, whose Sun are back in the postseason after a two-year absence. "I think every playoff series is going to be crazy. You could be the first-place team and be done early because the fourth-place team in both conferences is really good."
All that said, if any team posted a regular-season résumé that absolutely qualifies it for WNBA playoffs favorite status, it's obviously Minnesota. And that's a sentence that has never been written before this year.
Minnesota, after not quite turning the corner in 2010, did so in a big way this season. The Lynx go into the playoffs with the league's best record (27-7), the coolest Twitter nickname (#LosLynx), two MVP candidates (Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen), the cinch for rookie of the year (Maya Moore), and one of pro sports' most conspicuous sippers of the Fountain of Youth (Taj McWilliams-Franklin).
Mama Taj is 11 years older than her next-oldest teammate, 29-year-old Rebekkah Brunson. A stabilizing force throughout her WNBA career, McWilliams-Franklin is one of the players who individually brings postseason experience to a franchise that has very little of that.
The Lynx haven't appeared in the playoffs since 2004, but Whalen -- then a rookie with Connecticut -- helped get the Sun to the WNBA finals that year. Brunson helped Sacramento win the league title in 2005, while McWilliams-Franklin and Alexis Hornbuckle, now a Lynx reserve, won it all in 2008 with Detroit, where current Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve was an assistant.
In light of the fate of the franchises in Sacramento (gone), Houston (gone), Charlotte (gone) and Detroit (moved) since 2004, the Lynx fans have to be thankful the team stayed put in Minnesota despite the lack of success. But believing in the Lynx during those six seasons without a playoff berth was trying; Minnesota went a combined 77-127 in that stretch.
Reeve took over last season, when Whalen came back to her home state via trade. The Lynx finished 13-21, but had a lot of reasons for higher hopes for 2011. And it wasn't just an empty "wait-until-next-year" sentiment.
The additions of No. 1 draft pick Moore and veteran McWilliams-Franklin helped provide the Lynx with enough other options -- along with the likes of Whalen and Brunson -- to ease the pressure on the current player who has spent the most time in a Minnesota uniform: 2006 No. 1 draft pick Seimone Augustus.
The Lynx now face a San Antonio team that Minnesota beat four times this season, yet two of those games came down to last-second plays.
Minnesota closed out the regular season with a 96-90 win at Phoenix, which rested starter Penny Taylor, who has been dealing with back spasms. If these teams are to meet again in 2011, it will be in the Western Conference finals. Phoenix will face Seattle, the team that has been the Mercury's nemesis this year and last.
While the Mercury have had Taylor's injury of late to deal with, the Storm were without Jackson for much of the season with a hip injury. She played in 13 games, averaging 12.2 points and 4.9 rebounds. A healthy Jackson -- her averages last year were 20.5 and 8.3 over 32 regular-season games -- was the difference between Seattle being the clear front-runner in 2010 versus one of the hopefuls in 2011.
Even so, the Storm still had Phoenix's number in three of their four meetings this year.
"We need to find a good balance of playing well and getting a lot of people involved," said Taurasi, who finished as the league's scoring champion (21.7 ppg). "We go through stretches where we do that, and others where we just get lost in the shuffle. But I think that's actually a lot of teams.
"This year, I've been watching a lot of games. And you'll see a team one night, and they'll look terrible. Then you play against them, and you're like, 'How did this team lose a game?'"
That speaks to how balanced the WNBA was, even taking into account the Lynx's league-best record and Tulsa's league-worst (3-31). In the Eastern Conference, just two games separated first-place Indiana and fourth-place New York, who'll now meet in the semifinals.
"After the All-Star break, I wouldn't necessarily say people started playing harder, but you could tell everyone was prepping for the playoffs," said Indiana's Tamika Catchings, another MVP candidate. "The intensity is higher, the focus is a lot crisper. Anybody could be in a position to win this year."
New York had its challenges this season. Among them: a new coach/GM in John Whisenant, a move (due to the Madison Square Garden renovation) to Newark, N.J., for home games, the decision of post player Janel McCarville to not play in the WNBA in 2011. Yet behind another outstanding season from Cappie Pondexter and a leap forward from fellow Rutgers alum Kia Vaughn, a candidate for the league's most improved player, the Liberty fought their way into the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Connecticut will take on Atlanta. The Sun's Tina Charles and the Dream's Angel McCoughtry met for the NCAA championship in 2009, when UConn beat Louisville. McCoughtry was the No. 1 draft pick and then rookie of the year in '09, then Charles was the same in '10. Now both are contenders for MVP, an award that was as difficult as ever to choose a winner for this season.
The Dream played Seattle close last season in the finals, but still were swept. McCoughtry was again the consistent force this summer as Atlanta had to get through some key injuries.
The Sun have seven players with three years' experience or less -- counting this season -- in the WNBA. But one of the vets is guard Kara Lawson, who was part of Sacramento's 2005 championship team. She'll try to use that to her advantage.
"It does give you credibility when you talk about the playoffs to your teammates if you've had past success," Lawson said. "They are probably more apt to listen to what you're saying. Plus, anytime you've gone through those moments and you've succeeded, you have more confidence in what you can do and how you can handle it.
"Based on being in Sacramento, I have that confidence and can give them a little bit of an idea of what it's like and how play is elevated. They have to experience it for themselves, though."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.