Oct 1 2011 11:08AM

On Sunday, the underdog Dream meet the juggernaut Lynx in the WNBA Finals. See how they got here.

The dominant team in the WNBA in 2011 is in the Finals for the very first time, and looking to start a new era in team history.

Once written off, the Dream surged in the second half to return to their second straight championship series.
Angel McCoughtry WNBA.com Chat: "My Intensity is My Passion for the Game"
Atlanta's mercurial superstar checked in for a WNBA.com chat with her fans before the Dream head to Minnesota. See what she had to say.

Check out some of the best from around the web looking ahead to the WNBA Finals matchup between Minnesota and Atlanta.

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

�In a week's time, championship champagne could be slurped in the home locker room at Target Center � With the Lynx suddenly the talk of town, the current generation of basketball fans in Minny just want to know what a celebration looks like, feels like.�
-- Shaun Powell, NBA.com

�We really shouldn't be that surprised that the Atlanta Dream won the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals over the Indiana Fever after losing center Erika De Souza to the Brazilian National team. It was simply more of the same for this group that has persevered through injuries and player absences the entire season.�
-- Kris Willis, Peachtree Hoops

Check out the best of the second round, as we say goodbye once and for all to the 2011 Conference Finals.

Gonna be in Minnesota for Game 1 this weekend? So will the Sugarhill Gang.

The Minnesota Lynx today announced that hip hop music legends �The Sugarhill Gang� will put on a special halftime concert during Sunday's Game 1 of the 2011 WNBA Finals presented by Boost Mobile between the Lynx and the Atlanta Dream. The original innovators of hip hop music, The Sugarhill Gang will sing their hit singles "Rapper's Delight" and "Apache."

You might know "Apache" -- the Lynx players' theme song since 2006 -- better as 'Jump on It." So make like Will and Carlton and bring your best moves for Wonder Mike, Master Gee, and Henn-Dog.

And, ya know, Maya and Seimone and Angel and Izi.
Former Minnesota governor and pro wrestler Jesse 'The Body' Ventura has been sitting behind press row during the Lynx' historic run all year long. He can't make it for Games 1 and 2, but he's hoping you'll take his place. All of you.

Before the Lynx open up their first-ever WNBA Finals on Sunday, Jesse Ventura -- arguably the biggest and baddest fan in the league -- talked to WNBA.com about what ignited his passion for the game, the Lynx' chance to make Minnesota history and how he turned off football last Sunday to watch Game 2 of the WNBA Western Conference Finals.

Some of the best:
  • This is how much I love the WNBA. On TV Sunday, when the Vikings were done playing, I watched the WNBA instead of watching Green Bay and Chicago. I left the NFL Sunday to watch the WNBA on Sunday.
  • If you're a Minnespta professional sports fan, this is the only team here, in my opinion, right now that's capable of winning a title.
  • I noticed people at the airport greeting the ladies at two in the morning. That�s outstanding. That shows you the base is growing. I�d have never expected them to have people waiting for them. I come from the pro wrestling world -- Nobody�s ever waiting for the villain.
  • Taj is remarkable. At age 40, she can dive for a basketball and still get up. It�s one thing to dive for a basketball, it�s another thing to get up.
  • We have to put the dynasty together. But dynasties require fans, and this is an opportunity for a dynasty, and you don�t see that often today. But for the next three to four years, we could have a dynasty here.

Minnesota's Taj McWilliams-Franklin spins the pre-series debate like a seasoned pro.

Lynx center Taj McWilliams-Franklin, in addition to being a veteran two-time WNBA Champion going for the trifecta this fall, is also a savvy off-the-court player, quick with a quip and well-placed quote.

So Minnesotans of a certain age, or perhaps students of U.S. Presidential campaigns, may have detected a faint but familiar note when Taj responded to a live chat question regarding her "efficiency," and "no wasted energy," with a sly, self-deprecating, lowering-the-bar-so-I-can-leap-over-it retort.

"I�m old and slow," said the 40-years-young McWilliams-Franklin. "I don�t know if it�s a big secret, but [my] efficiency is because I just move a lot slower than [anyone] expects, so when they�re going for a first move I haven�t made yet, I�m actually going for a second move I�m thinking about."

Minnesotans will be hoping that Taj's uncanny impression of Ronald Reagan in 1984 will result in a Fritz Mondale-like ending for the Atlanta Dream in WNBA Finals 2011, evening the score for fans from the Gopher State.
After a horrific start to the season, Angel McCoughtry's shooting percentage and scoring totals ballooned in the season's final 10 weeks -- and the Dream's record followed suit.
By the time June ended, the woman who would finish as the second-leading scorer in the WNBA by the smallest margin in league history was sitting at No. 16.

She'd finish the season at 21.56 points per game, just seven-hundredths of a point shy of eventual winner Diana Taurasi. But on June 31, with her 2010 Finals runner-up Dream team at 3-7, Angel McCoughtry was struggling.

She was scoring 15.1 points per game at that point, a total far from awful -- it was ahead of Tamika Catchings, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore's averages at that juncture, to name a few -- but far from McCoughtry's usual pace. The culprit? She was shooting only 38.5 percent from the field for the month.

To be fair, McCoughtry's never been a surgeon from the floor, shooting 40.8 percent from the floor in 2010, en route to a 21.1 ppg average. But on June 31 of this year, her field goal percentage ranked her second-last among the Top 30 scorers in the month of June.

By the time the season ended, she'd worked things out.

Over the next three months, McCoughtry finished no worse than second in the WNBA in scoring. In June, she led the league with 25.1 ppg. In July, she put up 22.1 ppg to finish second to Taurasi. Then, in five September games, she once again led the league, pouring in 26.4 points per contest. And in each of those months, she shot no worse than 40 percent from the field for the month, firing at a 43.6 percent clip after June -- including 42.6 in July and 51.2 percent in September.

So, in short, we know McCoughtry's going to get her shots. She led the WNBA in field goal attempts for the seconds straight year in 2011 (16.8 per game), after hoisting up 17.7 per game in 2010. Her Usage Rate, as shown here, accounted for 24.61 possessions per game.

But if you're looking for the engine behind the Dream's Renaissance, look no further. Not only was McCoughtry scoring at a much higher clip -- after June, she scored 23.9 points per game -- but she was missing a whole lot less. So, all of a sudden, those possessions that ended with a sprint back the other way finished with a couple points for the Dream. And over the course of the season's final three months, those points added up.

Below, see our graph of McCoughtry's scoring efficiency (simply field goal percentage plus points in a game -- ie: if she shot 40 percent from the field and scored 20 points, the total would be 60) over the course of the year, with the Dream's corresponding record below.

Check out some of the best from around the web looking at the end of the Conference Finals and the WNBA Finals matchup

�The league's rookie of the year and the oldest veteran joined forces, and together they made the Lynx unstoppable. Maya Moore scored 21 points -- hitting six of eight three-point shots -- as the Lynx dominated Phoenix 103-86 to win their best-of-three Western Conference Finals series in two games. Taj McWilliams-Franklin, the Lynx's 40-year-old center, matched Moore's 21 points.�
-- Roman Augustoviz, Minneapolis Star Tribune

�It turns out the worst thing for the Indiana Fever in the Eastern Conference Finals might not have been Tamika Catchings' injury. It was Erika de Souza's call-up to the Brazilian national team. With de Souza gone, the Atlanta Dream inserted another Brazilian, Iziane Castro Marques, into a three-guard lineup. That was like adding jet fuel to an Indy car.�
-- David Woods, Indianapolis Star

�[The Finals is] a matchup of two very athletic teams with plenty of star power. The Dream's McCoughtry (2009) and the Lynx's Seimone Augustus (2006) are both past No. 1 overall draft picks. Those two and Minnesota point guard Lindsay Whalen were each MVP candidates this season. Another No. 1 draft pick, Dream point guard Lindsey Harding (2007), will return to Minnesota to face the team she played for to start her WNBA career. And yet another No. 1 selection, Minnesota's Maya Moore -- the league's rookie of the year this season after a brilliant career at UConn -- will have a chance to play again in Georgia, the state where she went to high school.�
-- Mechelle Voepel, ESPN

After Angel McCoughtry scored 26 points to send the Fever to the Finals for the second straight year, an exhausted McCoughtry broke it all down with the NBA TV crew.
The Fever couldn't catch the Dream. But our cameras could.
Whichever team wins the 2011 WNBA crown, it'll be the first time in team history.

After four months of play, only two teams are left alive in the WNBA.

One, we could have guessed. The Minnesota Lynx started pulling away from the pack in July and -- in stark contrast to years past (note: every year past) -- never looked back. Rolling down a road that looked destined to end up in Minnesota's first-ever Finals berth, Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Co. made good on all the promise that lured Taj McWilliams-Franklin from New York in the offseason in search of history in the Twin Cities.

The other one would've required some light time-travel.

It was only 10 weeks ago that the Atlanta Dream were looking like their 2010 Finals run (in just their third year of existence) was a fluke, merely the product a team that got hot at the right time and a star, in Angel McCoughtry, starting her ascent into the constellation of all-time great WNBA scorers. At 3-9 on July 13, they'd just lost their second game in a row, falling to the Liberty after dropping a game to the Sky four days prior.

The Lynx lost consecutive games just once all year, against Seattle and Indiana on June 24 and 26. The Dream had three losing streaks of two or more games on three separate occasions in the first month of the year -- which includes three straight losses open the season. They didn't win two games in a row a single time in their first 12 games, and those three wins came against teams that'd finish fourth and fifth in the East. Not until Atlanta downed Indiana (its first of four wins over the Fever in the regular season) in its 14th game of the season, did the Dream defeat a team that ended the season better than third in the conference.

You know the rest. The Dream would lose just six times the rest of the way -- including a Game 1 loss in the Eastern Conference Finals -- racking up a 21-6 record to close the year. Only the Lynx, at 24-4, finished the year at a better clip.

Now, the two hottest teams in the WNBA meet for a chance to win their first-ever WNBA title. And we'll be there, every step of the way, to bring you everything you need to know about both teams' quests to make history.
The underdogs are back in the Finals.

It took the Minnesota Lynx 13 years to reach their first-ever WNBA Finals.

It took the Atlanta Dream just four to reach their second.

More: Locker Room | Chris & Debbie Talk Game 3
Angel McCoughtry stole the show with 26 points and Izi Castro Marques continued her Playoff metamorphosis, with 23 of her own (and 53 over her past two games), as the Dream secured their second straight Finals berth with an 83-67 win over the top-seeded Indiana Fever on Tuesday night. After making a run to the Finals as the fourth seed in the East last year, the Dream made it significantly easier on themselves this time around, taking the No. 3 seed and and downing the top two candidates for the WNBA MVP and the No. 1 team in the East on their march to the championship round.

We'll have much more from Atlanta's historic win -- which made them the first team in WNBA history to reach two Finals in their first four years since the now-defunct Houston Comets and New York Liberty did so four and three times, respectively, in the first four years of the league -- but for right now, let's get out some quick-hits.

  • Each one of Atlanta's starters finished at least plus-17, with Sancho Lyttle (who recorded a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds) pacing the starting five at plus-27.
  • Only two of the 10 Indiana players who saw game action on Tuesday finished with a positive plus-minus: Jeanette Pohlen and Shyra Ely, who combined to go plus-7 over 11 total minutes.
  • Four Dream players scored in double-figures, while only two Fever players crossed that threshold (Katie Douglas with 16 and Tammy Sutton-Brown with 11).
  • Indiana got into foul trouble early, getting into the penalty in the first and second quarters, but the Dream struggled yet again in the early-going, shooting 10-for-20 from the free throw line into the third quarter. Atlanta did fair better down the stretch, finishing 21-33 from the stripe..
  • Playing on a foot that could barely support her weight, MVP Tamika Catchings notched six points, five rebounds and four fouls in 24 minutes.
  • After going 10-for-20 in the first period, the Fever shot only 11-for-36 between the second and third quarters. Indiana didn't record a field goal during one five-minute stretch in the second quarter.

According to the Indianapolis Star, Indiana Fever forward and league MVP Tamika Catchings is going through warmups at Conseco Fieldhouse and will attempt to play in tonight's Game 3 vs. Atlanta.
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Get up to speed on the best from the web as the Dream look to extinguish the Fever in the final game of the Eastern Conference Finals on Tuesday night.
The Dream have won five out of six games against the Fever in 2011. And with questions surrounding Tamika Catchings' injured foot, does Atlanta have what it takes to make it six?

The stakes for tonight�s game are simple, Brian Martin writes: Win and move on. Lose and go home.

But while the stakes are straightforward, this matchup is not. Far from it, actually, with more twists and turns than the average three-game series.

With both coaches looking to trip the other one up, Angel McCoughtry looking to keep the touch that brought her 27 points in Game 2 (and Izi Castro Marques hoping that there's still some lighting in the bottle) and Tamika Catchings trying to keep her season alive on an injured foot that left her unable to walk on Sunday, nothing's clear about Tuesday night's clincher.

WNBA.com dusts off some old-school pie charts before Indiana and Atlanta try to take the cake in Game 3.
With the official word about Tamika Catchings' Game 3 availability still to come -- she's currently listed as a game-time decision -- the Fever enter the decisive game of the Eastern Conference Finals with the very real possibility that they'll have to go without their best player. And leading scorer. And leading rebounder. And best defensive player. That's all the same person, by the by.

And while Catchings' true worth to her team has never across in sheer numbers, plenty of it does. Statistics don't tell the whole story of Tamika Catchings, but they do paint a pretty vivid picture. Not only is she the only player in WNBA history to lead her team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, but she's done it a half-dozen times. In 2011, she was the only player to finish in the Top 15 in the league in the five major categories. And that doesn't even factor in the number of players she turns into college freshmen on a regular basis.

But for now, let's stick to the numbers. You could write for days about Catchings' intangibles (or at least read for a couple hours), but with their season on the line, the Fever need to think in numbers right now.

And to find out just how big the hole will be if Catchings can't go tonight, we broke down the 2011 regular season Usage Rates for the Dream and Fever's top seven players, in terms of minutes in these Playoffs (which gives us a rough breakdown of the players who'll see the most time tonight). Though it's not a perfect stat, Usage Rate uses field goal and free throw attempts, assists and turnovers to show how many plays go through a single player over the course of a game.

So, if Catchings can't go tonight, not only will the Fever have to make up for her 15.5 points and 3.5 assists per game, they'll have to find someone else to finish the play over the course of more than 17 possessions.

Meanwhile, the Dream managed to do just that in Game 2, as Iziane Castro Marques scored a Playoff career-high 30 points to fill the void left when fellow Brazilian Erika de Souza had to leave the Dream to play in Olympic Qualifiers for the Team Brazil.

Castro Marques chalked up a Usage Rate of 27.75 possessions in Game 2, a spike of 148 percent over her season average of 11.15 and three points higher than Angel McCoughtry's season average of 24.61 -- although just shy of McCoughtry's Game 3 total of 27.96 (on 23 field goal attempts, six foul shots, four assists and a turnover).

Tonight, if Catchings can't go, look for Katie Douglas to look to lead the way and for the Dream to do exactly what they did in Game 2: run.
Before the Fever and Dream do battle in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals tonight, check out the plays that got us here.
After finishing the first two courses on the menu, the Lynx are out for something sweet. So are we.

By now, Taj McWilliams-Franklin knows how to craft a quote. And when she sat down for her press conference on Sunday, her Lynx having just kicked the Mercury out of their own building to sweep the Western Conference Finals, she got the whole press corps salivating.

"It's like you sit down to a great dinner and you eat your dinner,'' McWilliams-Franklin said. ``You feel great but you still want that dessert, and you want it to be the best dessert ever and that's how I feel. I'm satisfied because I am full from that main meal but I'm waiting on that fabulous dessert. The Finals is going to be that dessert for me.''

Vintage Taj. And very little could be sweeter for the Lynx than a WNBA crown in the same season that saw them win not only only their first Playoff series, but their second-ever Playoff win in team history. But let's say, hypothetically, that you're not a member of the Minnesota Lynx. Let's say you don't have a chance to taste the kind of dessert that McWilliams-Franklin's talking about -- that you're the kind of person that prefers meringue over metaphor.

Well, if you happen to be in Minnesota for the first two games of the WNBA Finals, you'd be in luck. From cupcakes to...uh, full-sized cakes...the Twin Cities have you covered. In butter. Because as the temperatures drop (Minny's supposed to get down to the 30's on Saturday night), there's no reason your waistline should.

In other words, we'll see you there.

Around since 1984, the G.O.C. was the first place in St. Paul to make and serve its own "super-premium" ice cream, and thus holds a special place in the (heavy-cream-soaked) hearts of its many devotees. A perennial member of virtually every Top 10 Ice Cream Shop in America list, it now has a location in Minneapolis, too, so if you find yourself craving some 'Black Hills Gold' or any of its other 30 flavors, don't be shy. But it's probably best to know where you can find the local defibrillator.

Thanks to owner John Kraus's background in at the French Pastry School of Chicago -- known as one of the nation's premier schools, if not the best, for that art form -- this South Minneapolis destination has been filling its patrons' souls and arteries with macarons, croissants, cookies, tarts and all other pastries for the better part of two years now. If you're in the mood for celebrating, check out one special dessert, writes Citypages writer Rachel Hutton: "A chocolate-covered dome containing milk-chocolate mousse, vanilla cr�me brule�, and hazelnut crunch. It's sprinkled with edible gold leaf as if to emphasize that these aren't just desserts, they're high art."

Food trucks have exploded in popularity in the Twin Cities of late, and few dessert carts have managed to out-do the mobile location for the University of Minnesota-based sugar shack. Strapped with cupcakes that range from your basic red velvet to something known as Elvis -- a banana cupcake stuffed with peanut butter and topped with marshmallow and chocolate sprinkles -- you can either go to its permanent location or track the truck down. Given the ingredients, you might want to run there.

A pizza shop, cafe and dessert shop in one, Cafe Latt�'s best known for its turtle cake [pictured at right], which is essentially a creative way of feeding you chocolate, pecans, caramel, fudge, chocolate, caffeine, more caramel and a stick of butter in one dish. Wrote Citypages blogger Hannah Williams in a 2009 review, "One trip Caf� Latte singlehandedly destroys any and all willpower and personal restraint." Sold.

Because sometimes you just need dessert for breakfast. Wrapped in bacon.

Burger Jones bills itself as a 'Restaurant and Cocktail Bar.' But it's better-known as the home of the Salted Caramel Custard Shake, a blend of not only custard (extreme ice cream), but a caramel swirl and some salt to give it that sweet-and-salty mix -- which means Burger Jones is also known as the reason why your health insurance premiums tripled.

EDITOR'S NOTE: We'll add more to this list after some on-location reporting this weekend.
The WNBA Finals will open up in Minneapolis.

Even after a regular season that saw the Minnesota Lynx slice through their schedule, putting together the best record in the WNBA with winning streaks that could be better described as winning months to usher in a dramatically new and different chapter in team history, doubts lingered. The ghosts of seasons past -- when the Lynx had started strong and finished early, often out of the running entirely -- still haunted the team that had earned home-court advantage throughout the Playoffs.

Could they finally break through that wall? Against teams that had been there (and won it all) before, could the Lynx continue what they'd done during the regular season? And, above all, were they really good enough?

On Sunday night, with a 103-86 win over the Phoenix Mercury to secure the first -- and the team's first -- spot in the WNBA Finals, the Lynx might have finally exorcised those demons.

And in quieting the questions that had surrounded the team ever since the Playoffs began -- and intensified with a Game 2 loss to the Silver Stars in round one -- the answers came from all corners. Twenty-two year old Maya Moore scored 21 points. Forty-one year old Taj McWilliams-Franklin had 21 herself. And five more Lynx players between those ages scored in double-figures, too, as the WNBA's newest success story out-gunned the WNBA's best offense for the second game in a row.

For Phoenix, it was the second straight year that the Mercury were swept in the conference finals, after eventual champ Seattle took down them down in two games last year. Diana Taurasi scored 22 points in the loss.

Now, the Lynx turn their attention to Indiana, where the (possibly Tamika Catchings-less) Fever host the Dream on Tuesday night for the chance to take on Minnesota in the Finals.

Check out WNBA.com on Monday for more news and notes from the weekend, not to mention all you need to know before Tuesday night's deciding Game 3 in Indy.

2011 WNBA Finals
Minnesota vs. Indiana/OR/AtlantaLocalEDTNational Broadcast
Game 1 - Sun October 2Ind./OR/Atl. at Minnesota7:30 PM8:30 PMESPN
Game 2 - Wed October 5Ind./OR/Atl. at Minnesota7:00 PM8:00 PMESPN2
Game 3 - Fri October 7Minnesota at Ind./OR/Atl.8:00 PM8:00 PMESPN2
Game 4 * Sun October 9Minnesota at Ind./OR/Atl.4:00 PM4:00 PMESPN2
Game 5 * Wed October 12Ind./OR/Atl. at Minnesota7:00 PM8:00 PMESPN2

An injury to the WNBA MVP has the Fever facing myriad questions after a Game 2 loss in Atlanta.
The Dream needed a big game from Angel McCoughtry.

They got a bigger one from Iziane Castro Marques.

With 30 points on 13-of-22 shooting, Marques outscored her entire Playoff total of 23 points and paced the Dream to a series-leveling 94-77 win over the Dream in Atlanta. McCoughtry added 27 and three more Dream players scored 10 points, as every Atlanta starter reached double-figures.

But, with 4:45 left in the fourth quarter and the Dream up 85-69, the story changed.

On what appeared to be a routine defensive play, WNBA MVP Tamika Catchings cried out and crumpled to the floor. She tried to walk off the court, but collapsed, as her teammates rushed around her. Unable to put pressure on her foot -- the same one that had suffered an Achilles tear in 2007 -- she had to be carried into the locker room, a towel over her head.

Early reports had that her foot didn't look broken and that the injury doesn't appear to be a recurrence of a past injury, but Catchings' ability to play in Game 3 is now very much in question. Stay tuned to WNBA.com for more about the Fever star's status.
The Mercury's always-chipper star caught up with WNBA.com before Game 2 in Phoenix.

Penny Taylor's been here before. About a week ago, actually. So when she sat down with WNBA.com in the run-up to the second game of the Western Conference Finals (Sunday, 5 pm, ESPN2), she had one message: don't panic.

WNBA.com: This is the second straight series you guys have had a tough time in Game 1. What do you attribute the slow start to?

Penny Taylor: I think we just like to do things the hard way [laughs]. We obviously love to travel, and we need to have our backs up against the wall in order to get us going.

That�s just the way it�s gone. We had that blowout in Seattle, then we came back and showed a lot of character in the way we fought.

What are your thoughts after a blowout like the one you had against Minnesota, where you�re walking off the court and you�re down 20-30 points?

Penny Taylor: [Coach] Corey Gaines said this morning that if you lose by 30 or lose by one, it doesn�t really matter. It�s still a loss, and we�ve had that mentality .We�ve tried to put it behind us and look forward. Everyone feels disappointed when we play that way, and everyone in their own mind looks and takes a good look at what they did and didn�t do.

Do you have more confidence in your ability to rebound in this series because of the way you won in Seattle, winning two in a row and clinching the series at KeyArena, where nobody ever wins on the road?

Penny Taylor: I think it was a big win for us, obviously, and the last couple years against the Storm we�ve relays struggled. I think we got 18 points down at one point and we were able to fight back. So we take a lot away from it, and now that we got down against the Lynx again, we know we�ve done this before we can do it again.

We got [the Lynx� lead] down to six points at one point, but w need to work on the part where we don�t get down 18 in the first place.

Before the postseason, Candice Dupree talked to ESPN about the need to focus on the game and not worry about officiating. But last game, you guys looked frustrated, and spent some time getting on the refs.

Penny Taylor: I think we�re a little bit of a fiery team, and Candice said that before she got two technicals [laughs]. Sometimes that distracts us a little bit � we�re passionate, we�re fired up when we�re out there, and we�re fighting hard, so we can be a little bit fiery. Sometimes it works in our favor, and it fires up to work harder. Sometimes it doesn�t.

The Lynx scored from everywhere on Thursday night. How tough is it playing against a team that can hurt you in so many ways?

Penny Taylor: I think it�s great for that organization and that fan base. I�ve never seen a crowd like that in Minnnesota. Obviously getting the No. 1 pick and Seimone being healthy and fit really helped, and this year is huge for them. They do really have a weapon at every position, and they have a bench that�s 11 players long, so they�ve done a great job of putting the team together � and had a bit of luck in getting Maya.

If the Dream hope to get back to the Finals, they will need to do so without Erika de Souza

After dropping Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday, the Atlanta Dream are just one loss away from seeing their 2011 season come to an end.

If they hope to advance to the WNBA Finals for the second time in as many years they will need to win the next two games against the Indiana Fever, with Game 2 Sunday in Atlanta, followed by Game 3 back in Indiana on Tuesday.

An already difficult task just got harder with the news that Dream starting center Erika de Souza will miss the remainder of the Conference Finals in order to join the Brazilian national team in an Olympic qualifying tournament in Columbia.

Heading into the series, it looked like the tandem post players for Atlanta � de Souza and Sancho Lyttle � may hold an edge over their counterparts from Indiana. But in Game 1, Fever forward Tangela Smith exploded for a season-high 25 points, using her 3-point shooting range to help spread out the Atlanta defense.

Now you take de Souza out of the lineup � and the 13 rebounds and eight points she provided in Game 1. Her minutes will likely go to Alison Bales, a 6-foot-7 in center, who like Smith from Indiana has an outside shooting touch. But how much will de Souza�s absence hurt the Dream in the paint?

To make matters worse, Atlanta All-Star Angel McCoughtry has been mired in a shooting slump during the postseason. It was McCoughtry who led the Dream�s charge from a 3-9 start to the No. 3 seed in the East, as she finished the season just a fraction of a point behind Diana Taurasi for the scoring title.

In Atlanta�s sweep of the Connecticut Sun, McCoughtry averaged 14 points and shot just 27 percent. Things did get better in Game 1 of the Conference Finals, as she scored 11 points in just 17.5 minutes before fouling out.

But don�t count out McCoughtry and the Dream just yet. Remember, it was McCoughtry that scored a WNBA playoff record 42 points in last year�s Conference Finals clinching game against the New York Liberty. She can explode at any time. And after three sub-par games to start the postseason, she more than overdue for a break out game.

But it needs to come quick. The Dream�s margin for error against the East�s top seed just got smaller with the loss of de Souza. If the Dream can find a way to make it past the Fever with two wins over the next three days, de Souza would re-join the team for the Finals.

So the question is: will Erika de Souza suit up for the Dream again this season?

After 10 years, one of the most universally beloved stars in league history gets her due. And with a win on Sunday, she'll have her team back in the Promised Land.
The Mercury star catches up with her fans before Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

For the second straight series, the Phoenix Mercury have come out out of the gates trying to set the tone. For the second straight series, they find themselves with their backs against the wall after getting blown out in Game 1. But them, worry? No way, says Penny Taylor. See what else she had to say when the Australian sharpshooter checked in for a Friday afternoon chat. Or, as they call it Down Under, a Friday afternoon chat.

A picture-by-picture breakdown of the players who changed their games in Thursday night's Game Ones.
Off-centered news and notes after Thursday's Conference Finals openers.
Friday night marks the first night without games since the Playoffs began last Thursday, but don't worry: we'll keep you well-stocked in Playoff updates all day long to get you ready for Sunday's Game Twos. But with a lot of time to kill (and just 3.5 hours until the weekend), we figured you could use a break from stats for a bit.

Like Comparing Apples to...Jalapenos

Over the years, mayoral sports bets have turned into an art form -- kind of like this. From pigs and bees to pastrami and signed scripts of the short-lived cultural juggernaut The O.C., mayors have long drummed up support for their local teams' playoff runs with friendly wagers.

Welcome to the club, Mayors R.T. Rybak and Phil Gordon. Ryback, of Minneapolis, wagered local apples on the Lynx. If they win, Minneapolis will be getting a crate of hot sauce and salsa's from Gordon, Phoenix's head of government. Zesty.

You, Me and Dupree's T's

Before the start of the Western Conference semifinals, Phoenix forward Candice Dupree chatted with ESPN about the need to play ball without getting the refs involved. But ducking elbows on the inside takes its toll on even the most placid of post players -- Dupree now has two technical fouls in her last two games.

Body of Work

Former governor of Minnesota/professional wrestler/star of fictional films Jesse 'The Body' Ventura was spotted courtside at the Lynx' conference-semifinal-clinching game on Tuesday night. Always animated, Ventura spent half the game standing. And yelling.

We couldn't find any pictures him from the game in Getty Images, so here's a video of him talking about how he has bigger arms than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Warming Up

Minnesota's Candice Wiggins and Indiana's Tan Smith had scored a combined 23 points in six games (three for the Lynx, three for the Fever) in the conference semifinals. going a combined 9-for-31 from the field in the first round. On Thursday night, they picked up a combined 39 points (25 for Smith, 14 for Wiggins) to give their teams big boosts in their series-opening wins.

Ge-no's Best

University of Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma was on-hand for color commentary during ESPN2's broadcast of the Lynx-Mercury game on Thursday -- a game that featured the two most successful players in UConn history, in Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi -- and chipped in his usual heaping helping of one-liners and jabs. He did add one piece of trivia that none of us around the office knew, though: in 2001, when current Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson was at Georgetown and Taurasi was starting at UConn, it was Brunson who was named BIG EAST Rookie of the Year. Taurasi would have the last (or most recent ) laugh (the Lynx do have a 1-0 lead), though, as she earned two National Player of the Year Awards, scored 15 points per game and led Connecticut to a 139-8 record over her four years in Storrs.

Tamika's Touch

Just-crowned WNBA MVP Tamika Catchings made the shot of the night on Thursday, when she stole the ball near midcourt, cut into the lane, half-spun, fell backwards, flipped up the no-look shot because, well, she'd already come this far, and watched it carom off the backboard and in.

In the words of WNBA editor Brian Martin: 'When you're MVP, shots like this go in.'

No word yet on what made the other 5,862 points of her career go in.

Only a Number

With a plus-26 rating in just over 28 minutes (meaning that her team scored 26 more points than the Mercury when she was on the court), Lynx forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin had by far the highest total of the night. In related news, she's 41 years old.

With Moneyball hitting theaters on Friday night, we're in the mood for math.
Times Minnesota trailed in its Game 1 win over Phoenix
Wins by the Fever over the Dream this season, with the lone victory (so far) coming tonight in the East Finals. Atlanta had gone 4-0 against Indiana during the regular season.

Highlights: Fever-Dream | Play of the Day
More: Cheryl Reeve Postgame | Fever-Dream Locker Room
Charges drawn by Tamika Catchings by Angel McCoughtry
Players to score 20 points or more on Thursday: Tangela Smith (25), Diana Taurasi (22) and Seimone Augustus (21)
Tan Smith's previous season-high in scoring
The smallest lead, in points, that Minnesota had over Phoenix on Thursday after opening the game on a 15-3 run. Phoenix mounted a comeback in the third quarter, but a Tan Smith 3-pointer stemmed the tide and kept the Lynx ahead for good.
The assist margin for the Lynx over the Mercury, with Minnesota doubling Phoenix's total
Rebounds recorded by Rebekkah Brunson, Tamika Catchings and Erika de Souza on Thursday, tied for the highest total in that category on the night
After scoring just two points across three games in the Western semis, Candice Wiggins' point total on Thursday night
The Lynx' edge in rebounds (42-26)
Points from Minnesota's bench
Points from Angel McCoughtry -- 10.5 fewer than her average.
Number of minutes Atlanta's Angel McCoughtry played before fouling out
Number of minutes Atlanta's Lindsey Harding played. She never left the floor.
The average scoring output for the Mercury in their last two Game 1's. After scoring 61 against the Storm in the opener of the Western Conference semis, the Mercury came out with just 67 on Thursday.
Number of points scored by the Lynx on Thursday -- the most in team Playoff history
The Mercury's margin of defeat -- the biggest in Phoenix postseason history
The number of wins the Lynx need to reach their first-ever WNBA Finals.
Playing in front of their home crowds -- and thanks to some unlikely heroes -- the Fever and Lynx rolled to big wins in their Conference Final openers.

By now, we've come to expect this from Tamika Catchings and Seimone Augustus. Not that that makes what they did on Thursday night -- 12 points and 13 rebounds for Catchings, 21 points and 7 assists for Augustus -- any less impressive, but it'd be news if they didn't have nights like this to open up their respective Conference Finals.

But what made the difference on Thursday were the performances of names we've gotten a little less used to hearing about lately.
br/> For Indiana, the night belonged to Tan Smith, whose 25 points paced the Fever and achieved a sort of circular retribution, after she hit a dagger 3-pointer in the 2009 Finals to sink the Fever while playing for the Mercury.

In the late game, Rebekkah Brunson (13 points, 13 rebounds) -- who'd all but vanished on offense in the second half of the regular season -- and Candice Wiggins (14 points, 4-for-7 from behind the arc, a giant 3-pointer to stone a Phoenix comeback) joined the usual suspects, as the Lynx did what few teams have been able to do all year: make the Mercury look slow.

Both series now pick back up on Saturday, with games switching locales.
Can the Lynx and Fever hold serve at home? Check out the best of the web before tonight's pair of Game 1s.
No. 1 Indiana Fever vs. No. 3 Atlanta Dream
Conseco Fieldhouse | Indianapolis, Ind. | 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Preview | TV Companion | Series Preview | Video: NBA TV Breakdown | Playoff Blog

No. 1 Minnesota Lynx vs. No. 3 Phoenix Mercury
Target Center | Minneapolis, Minn. | 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Preview | TV Companion | Series Preview | Video: NBA TV Breakdown | Playoff Blog

The Dream may have ... um ... ahem ... won all four games against the Fever this season, just don't use the "S-word" in Atlanta.

As the Indiana Fever prepare to host the Atlanta Dream in the WNBA Eastern Conference Finals tonight (7pm ET on ESPN2) you'd think the fact that the Dream have defeated the Fever all four games they played this season would be a significant factor. Dream Head Coach Marynell Meadors disagrees. Completely.

"It means nothing. Absolutely nothing," said Meadors when asked by USA Today about the ... uh ... four straight wins. "Right now we're 2-0 in the playoffs and that's the way we're looking at it."

Got it. Consider the "S-word" as placed firmly under the rug via broom and never to be seen or spoken of again.
Atlanta's potent post player will fulfill obligations with the Brazilian National Team during WNBA postseason.

A team spokeswoman for the Atlanta Dream has confirmed that Dream forward Erica de Souza will join the Brazilian National Team at some point during its Olympic qualifying tournament in Columbia, but the dates have yet to be determined. Qualifying begins on Sept. 24, the same day that the Dream are set to host the Fever in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Meanwhile, fellow Brazilian Iziane Castro Marques will not join the national team and will be available to play in the Conference Finals, the spokewoman said.

The story on de Souza's absence was reported this morning by a variety of sources, including ESPN's Michelle Smith.
Playoff basketball is serious business, but up in Minnesota, they're having a good time too.

Heading into a huge conference finals showdown, players are typically taciturn or perhaps full of (false?) bravado. Tired cliches and platitudes about "working hard" and "wanting it more" than the opposition abound.

Not up in Minnesota.

Lindsay Whalen, Rookie of the Year Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and Company are ready to have some fun.

"We�re known for getting out and scoring and the way we score is just fun," said Augustus about the upcoming series against the Phoenix Mercury, which tips off in about...oh....seven hours on ESPN2. "It�s fun when the fans get to see Maya Moore pull up and shoot a patented three-point shot. It�s fun when people get to see me shoot my jumpers ... crossover move. It�s fun when you see Whalen slicing and dicing through the lane to get to the basket with the little crafty shots. It�s exciting to see the Lynx play basketball."

So there you have it. The Lynx are looking forward to having some fun tonight. Us too.
Mercury forward Nakia Sanford preps for Thursday's Western Conference Finals opener with a trip to the 4-million square foot Mall of America.
There's more work to be done. But from now on, it's uncharted territory.
A picture's worth a thousand words. Or at least a few clicks.
The WNBA world weighs in on the Lynx' big win and the start of the Conference Finals.

Western Conference

Conference Finals

Conference Semi Finals

Eastern Conference

Conference Finals

Conference Semi Finals