Moore and Catchings among the highlights of 2012 WNBA playoffs
Many of the WNBA's foreign stars will be in their best form after the Olympics
Keep an eye on New York's Cappie Pondexter and Connecticut's Kara Lawson
Maya Moore & Tamika Catchings, two of WNBA's best, likely to face off in the finals
Ten weeks after 12 of the nation's best basketball players joined forces to win a gold medal at the London Olympics, seven will try to add another shiny prize to their personal trophy case -- a WNBA championship. Some USA basketball teammates will be standing in the way of others, and all of their battles will be pitched. Seems like a compelling enough reason to tune into the playoffs, which begin on Thursday and air on NBA-TV and ESPN's family of networks, right? Here's the thing, though -- it barely even cracks the top 10:
10. Foreign stars on form. The midseason Olympic break has imbued the WNBA season with an almost staccato rhythm, as if the events before the month-long hiatus happened in a different year than the ones that came after. Much of the reason for this is that many of the foreign stars who anchor WNBA rosters -- like Seattle's Lauren Jackson (Australia) and Atlanta's Izianne Castro-Marquez (Brazil) --spent the first half of their WNBA season honoring commitments and training with their Olympic national teams and the second half trying to get back into the swing of things. With a little more than a month to reacclimatize, expect these players to be back on their A-games.
9. The short series. Tired of playoff series that seem to last longer than the regular seasons that precede them? Well, then the WNBA has the playoff format for you. The two rounds before the finals -- a conference semi and conference finals -- are best-of-three. The finals is best-of-five. All the action is guaranteed to finish well before Election Day or your money back.
8. The revenge games. Three of the four series are replays from playoffs past. In the East, the top-seeded Connecticut Sun clash with the fourth-seeded New York Liberty, the team that eliminated them from the postseason in 2008 and that started a two-year playoff drought; and the second-seeded Indiana Fever tangle with the third-seeded Atlanta Dream, a team that clinched their appearance in last year's WNBA finals when Fever star Tamika Catchings injured her foot in Game 2 of the 2011 Eastern Conference finals. In the West the third-seeded San Antonio Silver Stars face the second-seeded Los Angeles Sparks in a rematch of the 2008 Western conference finals, a series that most assume LA won behind rookie of the year Candace Parker when, really, San Antonio won in three. The top-seeded Minnesota Lynx battle the fourth-seeded Seattle Storm in a meeting of the last two WNBA champions. "[We] know it's going to be a war given the history of our two teams," said Silver Stars point guard Becky Hammon of the San Antonio-L.A. rivalry. If you've been waiting for years for this pro league -- perhaps the most congenial in all of sports -- to spill some bad blood, this could be your year.
7. The Atlanta Drama, er, Dream. For a team coming off back-to-back finals appearances, the Dream don't lack for drama -- all of it surrounding franchise swingman Angel McCoughtry. Her season-long war of roses with coach Marynell Meadors reached a head on Aug. 22, when both women were honored for their service to the gold-medal winning USA women's basketball team before a home date with the Chicago Sky. Meadors benched McCoughtry for that game for an unspecified violation of team rules. Instead of watching the game from Atlanta bench, McCoughtry sat behind the Sky bench. Two days later McCoughtry skipped the next game, on the road against the Washington Mystics. Three days after that, Meadors was fired -- on her birthday -- and assistant Fred Williams was promoted to coach and general manager. Atlanta barely skipped a beat after Williams took over, winning seven of 10 to close the season. McCoughtry played in just enough games (24) to capture her first league scoring crown, with an average of 21.4 points. Williams, a charter member of the Dream coaching staff and an offensive-minded coach, has earned McCoughtry's respect. He hopes to keep it by talking tough. "Every rule that we have with our team applies to every player; she knows that," he said. The Dream's title run may well hinge on how closely Williams is able to hold McCoughtry to that standard.
6. The guard matchups. None of these teams would have made it this far without stellar perimeter play. If you're looking for a matchup to watch, try New York's Cappie Pondexter versus Connecticut's Kara Lawson. Pondexter -- third in the league in scoring (20.4) and the Liberty's leader in assists (4.3) and steals (1.3) -- is your classic offensive microwave, while Lawson made her bones as a defensive dervish before emerging as a more reliable offensive threat this year. Pondexter, New York's best chance of making any noise this postseason, is going to throw everything she has at Lawson. And Lawson, who found veganism this season and was reborn as a svelte marathon woman, will be more than up to the task of stopping her. Their cat-and-mouse play will rival Tom and Jerry for entertainment value.
5. Lin Dunn. From her Southern fried aphorisms to anxious sideline demeanor, the Indiana Fever coach is a spectacle onto herself. But for most, there are only two ways to look at her: She is either the model of stability (her streak of five consecutive playoffs appearances is the longest among WNBA coaches) or the coach who can't win the big one. She essentially returns the same team that lost in the Eastern conference finals to Atlanta, but is grappling with how to manage starting point guard Briann January and supersub Shavonte Zellous -- neither of whom have played since suffering head injuries in a game on Sept. 17. While the Fever played well enough to match the franchise record for victories (with 22) and secure home court advantage in their series with the Dream, the team lost three of its last five to close the season. If Dunn & Co. don't come out firing at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday, this series could be finished before it really starts and Dunn's tenure in Indy could be up for serious review.
4. The young pivots. With so much temptation to look ahead to the young giants soon to join the league's ranks -- especially in the wake of a draft lottery in which the Phoenix Mercury came up the big winner in the Brittney Griner sweepstakes -- it's easy to overlook the talented young post players making names for themselves right now. Top of the class are Connecticut's Tina Charles, last year's No. 1 draft pick, rookie of the year and the front-runner for league MVP in '12; and Los Angeles' Nneka Ogwumike, this year's top pick, front-runner for rookie of the year and the Sparks co-MVP along with everywoman Candace Parker. Charles and Ogwumike rate among the league's best shooters, scorers and rebounders. They've already met twice before in title games as collegians, with Charles's Connecticut Huskies beating Ogwumike's Stanford Cardinal in the '09 and '10 Final Fours. Another title clash in '12 is not out of the question.
3. The grand dames. The WNBA is a seasoned woman's game. None are as experienced as Taj McWilliams-Franklin, an unsung hero of the defending champion Lynx. In her 13th season and a month away from her 42nd birthday, she is averaging 8.4 points on shooting 51.9 percent shooting from the field in 26.6 minutes. Her ability to create for herself and pass out of the post is a key part of what makes the Lynx and their big three of Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen so tough to defend. In the first round, she will have her hands full with Seattle's Lauren Jackson, a 11-year vet and three-time league MVP who has struggled to find her form since the Olympics but is primed to bounce back.
2. Tamika Catchings. As I said to start the season, the reigning league MVP plays the game with a sense of desperation, as if the next possession will be her last. She has reason to feel fatalistic, as injury does have a habit of ending her title runs prematurely. The plantar fasciitis injury she suffered in Game 2 of last year's Eastern Conference finals essentially decided the series. This year, Catchings is healthy, but her supporting cast is ailing. No one doubts that she is good enough to carry the Fever alone, but the question is: is she strong enough? If the load proves to heavy and -- in the worst-case scenario -- breaks Catchings again, the Fever is as good as finished.
1. Maya Moore. She is as smooth as she is subtle, like Clyde Drexler with a bun. She scores at will, gets her teammates involved and prizes team defense above individual stats. If she and the Lynx run the table again, Moore will become the first draft pick to win titles in her first two pro seasons since Tina Thompson in 1997. If you can't enjoy watching Moore -- the first female endorser of Nike's Jordan Brand -- do her thing, then you probably never liked basketball in the first place.
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