WNBA: Destiny Takes Atlanta and Seattle To Finals
By Mel Greenberg
Way back in the spring when the calendar flipped into June the Atlanta Dream had become hot news and arrived in Seattle with a 6-0 record to meet the Storm that was 5-1 after a loss to Chicago along the way.
It was a chuckled thought that maybe the matchup might be a preview of the 2010 WNBA best-of-five championship series.
However, at that moment in time with the WNBA season less than a month old many thought that in the East the Indiana Fever was quite capable of defending its conference championship. Out West, there were still thoughts that the Phoenix Mercury would return to the league finals it won in the closing minutes of the decisive fifth game in Arizona last year.
But as life has evolved both teams have cashed in on their nicknames since their first of two meetings in 2010, both won by Seattle.
Atlanta, in its third year of existence, finished turning a dream into reality Tuesday night by closing out the revitalized New York Liberty 105-93 in Georgia to advance to the championship that will open in the Northwest on Sunday and remain there through Tuesday.
Since the 90-72 victory over Atlanta on June 1 in a game in which eventual three-time league MVP Lauren Jackson scored 32 points, Seattle literally stormed its way the rest of the season with a 28-6 record to gain home court advantage.
Seattle clinched the West No. 1 seed in late july in part because the Storm were the only team in the conference with a winning record.
When the two met a second time in early August, Seattle won again in Atlanta 80-70 though both squads had more of a balanced attack on the offensive end.
The Dream and Storm, which is now 19-0 at home at the Key Arena, each got a hot start once the postseason got under way with Atlanta (19-15), as the fourth seed, deciminating the top-seeded Washington Mystics (22-12) in two straight before repulsing the second seeded Liberty (22-12) with another 2-0 sweep.
Seattle quickly dispatched the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Sparks with a 2-0 sweep, beating a team that was considered a preseason favorite before Candace Parker was sidelined with shoulder surgery prior to the All-Star game.
The Storm then felled the defending champs 2-0 but only after rallying over Phoenix in Game 2 in Arizona with a 15-0 game-ending rally that was decided 91-88 on Sue Bird's game-winning three-pointer with 2.8 seconds left to play.
In Tuesday night's game, second-year pro Angel McCoughtry, the 2009 rookie of the year and the No. 1 overall draft pick out of Louisville, set a playoff record with 42 points.
Cappie Pondexter, the former Rutgers star who came from Phoenix in a mega three-team offseason trade, had 36 points for New York while another Scarlet Knights star of the past, Essence Carson, had 20 points.
New York once again mounted a second-half rally to get to a 70-70 tie in the third quarter but was unable to sustain the momentum through the end of the game.
Thus, the return to the glory days when the Liberty were a headliner in the early WNBA era is now in the New York history books as is coach Anne Donovan. She is headed across the Hudson River to South Orange, N.J., where she becomes the new coach of Seton Hall.
The next time Donovan will be seen in an official capacity in Manhattan, not counting the Liberty post-mortems in the next few days, will be at Big East women's media day in October.
Next summer the Liberty will follow Donovan into the Garden State and remain there for three seasons playing in the Prudential Center in nearby Newark while Madison Square Garden undergoes renovations.
Speaking of dislocations, Atlanta's home games in the finals will move from the Phillips Arena to the Gwinnett Center in suburban Duluth where Southeastern Conference women's tournaments have been held.
The trend in the East continues in the championship series because the former Detroit Shock, now in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were displaced several times from the Palace in Auburn Hills and won the 2008 title playing in the deep suburbs at Eastern Michigan in Ypsilanti.
Seeding Power From Below
Much will be made of Atlanta winning the East finals as a fourth seed but it happened once before in 2001 when the Donovan-coached Charlotte Sting, a WNBA chartter team that went out of existence several years ago, advanced and lost 2-0 to the Los Angeles Sparks.
There are some differences and similarities involving Charlotte and Atlanta.
While much has been made of the tight Eastern Conference race this season -- all six teams had .500 or better records in early August -- the competition in 2001 was also quite competitive.
This summer Atlanta, which advanced to the playoffs a year ago in the Dream's second season, was a frontrunner early before a slump after the All-Star break sent them to their finish in fourth, but just three games behind New York and Washington.
In 2001, Charlotte struggled with a 1-10 start before launching a dramatic reversal. Coincidentally, but with a much better record than the Sting at the outset, Donovan's Liberty team this season spent the pre-All Star break bouncing between fifth and sixth place before forging the 10-game winning streak and finishing 15-3 after the regular season resumed.
The Sting charge in 2001 got them fourth place in a clear separation from the rest of the East as opposed to the Connecticut Sun's narrow miss this summer in fifth place.
The former Cleveland Rockers in 2001 were first at 22-10, the Liberty were a game-behind in second at 22-11, and the former Miami Sol were two back at 20-12. Charlotte finished four games behind at 18-14.
The Sting beat the Rockers, 2-1, winning at home in the semifinals opener and then taking the second of two games played in Cleveland.
In the East finals, Charlotte lost at home but then won an improbable two games in New York to gain the finals.
That Sting team featured Dawn Staley and also had a future Atlanta Dream player in Kelly Miller, then a rookie. This season Miller has been reunited with her twin sister Coco, both former Georgia stars, who in 2001 was a first round pick of Washington.
The twins are from Rochester, Minn., and that was the first time they had ever played on different teams.
When Seattle, then coached by Donovan, won its only title in 2004 -- the Storm are back in the finals for the first time since then -- there were some throwbacks to the American Basketball League, which played two seasons and then collapsed in the winter of 1998 under bankruptcy after less than two months of play.
Seattle and Hartford-Springfield (Mass.) had been two of the league's strongest markets and Storm executive Karen Bryant had the same level job with the ABL team while Connecticut Sun general manager Chris Sienko had held various executive titles with the New England Blizzard.
This year's ABL throwback in Storm coach Brian Agler, the WNBA coach of the year who guided the Columbus Quest in Ohio to the two ABL championships that were held.
Incidentally, while the Los Angeles Sparks' Tina Thompson is the last of the original WNBA player from 1997 when she was with the powerful Houston Comets, Washington Mystics star Katie Smith played for Agler in the ABL and the Sparks' DeLisha Milton-Jones is another former ABL player.
Seattle And Atlanta -- Some Things New Some Things Old
There are times when references in several cultures in this country talk about new money and old money.
Similarly comparisons can be made between the two teams in the finals.
Geographically, the Northwest where Seattle is located was one of the last frontiers in the exploration of America while Atlanta is from the old South.
However, with that obvious touch of UConn DNA, the Storm are veteran -- certainly not old -- with a core maintained and playing together several years.
The UConn graduate trio of former teammates are Sue Bird, Swin Cash, and Svetlana Abrosimova, while Tanisha Wright is now a veteran and keeps up the streak the last several years of a Penn State alum playing in the finals.
The others were Kelly Mazzante -- Phoenix 2009 and 2007 -- and Helen Darling -- San Antonio 2008.
Le'coe Willingham is new to the Storm but not new to the WNBA having signed as a free agent with the Connecticut Sun in 2004 after a stellar career at Auburn.
In 2008 she signed as a free agent with Phoenix, playing through last season's championship before inking a free agent deal this season with Seattle.
And the other Storm star, naturally, is Lauren Jackson who was then a teenage sensation from Australia when she was picked No. 1 in 2001 one year before Bird gained similar distinction in 2002.
Atlanta has veterans such as the Miller twins and Brazilians Iziane Castro Marques and Erika de Souza, but the youth brigade is highlighted by McCoughtry and Sancho Lyttle of recent vintage, though hard to believe Lyttle entered the league in 2005.
Alison Bales is a Duke grad from 2007 who played on Indiana, briefly on Phoenix after being with Atlanta the first year, and then back to the Dream this season.
Arminitie Price is a third-year pro out of Mississippi.
Shalee Lehning was a second round pick last year out of Kansas State.
Elsewhere in the News
There was a bit of discussion here in cyberspace Tuesday about a New York Times piece in print editions on how the WNBA should have had territorial draft picks such as the earlier era in the NBA.
The focus was on former Rutgers star Cappie Pondexter, a first round second-overall pick by Phoenix in 2006 who is now near her alma mater in New York.
The Guru won't take issue with those pointing out various omissions concerning the Liberty history, especially over draft day picks, but would like to note several things.
The writer Harvey Araton is a longtime follower of the women's game whom the Guru is well acquainted so perhaps blank bullets should be used in the criticisms of not mentioning bad picks over the years.
Though the Liberty has been castigated for the move last year that brought former Tennessee player Sidney Spencer for a first round draft pick that ultimately became the No. 1 overall pick -- Bronx native Tina Charles, the former UConn star -- at the time of the deal who knew that New York was headed for a woeful season and last place, especially off the tough playoff series with Detroit the season before.
The Connecticut Sun find themselves in similar potential crosshairs following the draft day deal this season that sent their 2011 first round pick to the Minnesota Lynx for former Nebraska star Kelsey Griffin.
With the Sun AND the Lynx both not making the playoffs, Minnesota has two of the four shots for the overall No. 1 pick, likely to be highly coveted UConn senior Maya Moore. She is currently training under her college coach Geno Auriemma with the USA national team that will compete in the FIBA World Championships this month in the Czech Republic.
However, the Sun's pick is the lowest of the four picks in the ping pong ball process with the Tulsa Shock ranked No. 1, followed by the Lynx's own pick, the Chicago Sky's pick, and then the Sun draft pick.
Meanwhile, if there was a territorial pick in 2006 Pondexter might have landed on the then-expansion Chicago Sky in her native city though the Sky did ok taking former Temple star Candice Dupree, now with Phoenix, in the first round.
Dupree is also training with the national team, primarily consisting of top WNBA talent that will play two exhibitions games this weekend in Hartford, Conn., at the XL Center.
The Americans meet the top-challenger Australians on Friday night and Spain on Sunday.