Commentary

Atlanta takes aim at league giant in Lynx

WNBA Finals Game 1 tips at 8:30 p.m. ET Sunday (ESPN2) in Minnesota

Originally Published: September 28, 2011
By Michelle Smith | espnW

(1) Minnesota Lynx vs. (3) Atlanta Dream

The WNBA Finals have turned into a matchup of (a) the team (Minnesota) that played the best basketball in the league all season; and (b) the team (Atlanta) that played the best basketball in the league in the final month.

Minnesota has earned a spot in the WNBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. The Lynx had never won a playoff series before coming into this postseason run. Atlanta is making its second straight trip to the WNBA Finals after getting swept last season by Seattle.

The way Seattle dominated the league in 2010 is not unlike what the Lynx have done this year. Minnesota won more games than any other team, was strong both at home and on the road and has a bevy of ways to hurt the opponent, from the scoring of Seimone Augustus (averaging 20.4 points per game in the postseason), to the gritty play of point guard Lindsay Whalen, to the steady leadership of Taj McWilliams-Franklin to the explosive post play of Rebekkah Brunson. And then there's the small matter of Minnesota's strong, disciplined defensive play, among the best in the league all season.

[+] EnlargeAngel McCoughtry
Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty ImagesAngel McCoughtry has guided Atlanta to its second consecutive WNBA Finals appearance.

So, for the second season in a row, Atlanta will be trying to slay the league's giant.

The Dream came into the postseason as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, but it should surprise no one that they are here, considering the way they have played over the past six weeks. After a 3-9 start attributable to injuries and absences, the Dream put it together in a big way behind third-year forward Angel McCoughtry. The Dream have lost just three games since Aug. 13 and haven't lost two straight since early July.

McCoughtry just might be the most dangerous individual player in the league right now with her athleticism, speed and ability to score. And she has a history of playing big in the postseason, putting up league-record scoring efforts last season in the conference finals (42 points) and in the WNBA Finals (35 points).

But the Dream can't win with just one player. All five starters have averaged double figures for Atlanta in the postseason and coach Marynell Meadors will be thrilled with the return of starting center Erika de Souza, who missed Games 2 and 3 of the Eastern Conference finals to play with the Brazilian national team. Fellow Brazilian Iziane Castro Marques turned in some of her best efforts of the season in de Souza's absence as the Dream went to a smaller lineup and still found plenty of success.

Minnesota won both regular-season games with Atlanta this season, played June 17 and 19, when Atlanta was still struggling to find its footing. It would be tough to envision the Lynx being that dominant at this point.

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This WNBA Finals could be as much fun as the five-game series between Indiana and Phoenix in 2009. Both Minnesota and Atlanta like to push tempo and will score a lot of points (Atlanta was second in the league in scoring; Minnesota ranked third). They were the top two rebounding teams during the regular season and have terrific inside-outside balance.

Seimone Augustus and Angel McCoughtry will provide ankle-breaking entertainment while Lindsay Whalen and Lindsey Harding stoically run their teams at point guard. Minnesota's Rebekkah Brunson and Atlanta's Sancho Lyttle are the best rebounding forwards in the league and it will be fun to watch them battle one another on the glass. Both squads play solid defense.

Shoot, it's worth tuning in to the Finals just to see what McCoughtry does when coach Marynell Meadors tries to sub her out of the game. Like McCoughtry in Game 3 versus Indiana, I'm going to refuse to be taken out, keeping my eyes fixed on the court, until the series is done and the 2011 champion is crowned.

Who wins?

Mechelle Voepel: Lynx in five. Here we go again … I've been wrong about the Dream in both their previous playoff series this season, so why start guessing correctly now, right?

Seriously, kudos to Atlanta for beating Connecticut and Indiana, despite the Sun and the Fever having home-court advantage in both those series. The Dream will be facing that again versus Minnesota, and I do think that will be a factor this time. (Although I thought it would be against Connecticut and Indy, too.)

The Dream knew for months that without some last-minute reprieve, they would lose Erika de Souza for part of the playoffs (provided they made the postseason). So they had a game plan ready for her absence. But they probably didn't expect it would work quite so well in Games 2 and 3 against Indiana. The smaller and quicker starting five for the Dream -- with the admittedly not small or quick (but efficient) center Alison Bales among those subbing in -- really put the pressure on the Fever. The Dream forced turnovers and controlled the pace of both games. And the performance of Iziane Castro Marques in the last two games changed the whole series. An All-Star last year who was more a role player this season, Castro Marques had 30 and 23 points against the Fever and combined with Angel McCoughtry to make an unstoppable scoring tandem for the Dream.

But speaking of unstoppable, that's how the Lynx looked in their Western Conference finals sweep of Phoenix. Six Minnesota players scored in double figures in the clinching game against the Mercury, and that's a nightmare to think about defending -- even for a team with the athleticism of the Dream.

Both teams have been good on the boards. Provided de Souza comes back, that gives Atlanta options to go bigger or smaller. Not that the Lynx don't have plenty of options, too, with their strong bench. And both teams also have good floor leaders who can score in point guards Lindsay Whalen and Lindsey Harding.

The Dream were swept -- albeit by the closest of margins -- last season in the Finals by the Storm. This year, the Finals will go the distance, with the Lynx prevailing in Game 5 at Target Center.

Michelle Smith: Lynx in four. The Lynx have the home-court advantage and are in a great position to finish what they have started. Minnesota has too many weapons and has played too well to fall apart now.

Pat Borzi: Lynx in four. The Dream can run and score with the Lynx, but they can't rebound and defend with them. The Lynx will ride their season-long strengths to their first WNBA championship.

Meri-Jo Borzilleri: Lynx in four. Matchups will be intriguing. The Lynx, owners of the best regular-season record, haven't slowed down a bit in the playoffs, while the Dream are playing their best basketball of the season. Atlanta has starting center Erika de Souza back from national team duty. Still, Minnesota's balance and multiple weapons, with stars Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Maya Moore, will win out.

Michelle Smith

Contributor, espnW.com

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