Liberty set to host well-rested Dream

When the New York Liberty were first getting a taste of the WNBA's postseason, in 1997, Atlanta didn't have a team in the league. Instead, the ABL was there in Georgia, trying to make a go of it with a franchise called the Glory.

The ABL lasted just two full seasons, folding while the third was under way, three days before Christmas 1998. The women's basketball fans of the city had to wait until 2008 to have a pro team again, when the WNBA expanded to launch the Atlanta Dream. They ended up 4-30 that first season, but at least it was a beginning, right?

So Sunday (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV) at Madison Square Garden, when New York hosts Atlanta in Game 1 of the WNBA's Eastern Conference finals, there is quite the contrast in terms of franchise history.

The Liberty have been there from the WNBA's start, one of the league's original eight franchises, playing in the inaugural game against Los Angeles in June 1997. And Liberty fans have been through the ringer, more than once but perhaps less than 5,000 times, with their team.

The Liberty lost a one-game championship to Houston in '97. Then fell in the best-of-three finals to the Comets in '99 and 2000. Made the finals again in 2002, and this time lost 2-0 to Los Angeles.

New York hasn't been to the WNBA finals since, coming closest with a 2-1 East finals loss to Detroit in 2008.

In the past 13 years, Liberty fans have loved players like Sue Wicks, Kym Hampton, Teresa Weatherspoon, Vickie Johnson, Becky Hammon and Shameka Christon.

They've lamented (screamed about) some moves that were made, and others that weren't. They gritted their teeth as Detroit became the standard-bearer for the Eastern Conference. They wished for a real superstar at the height of her game to wear a Liberty uniform.

Now, in Cappie Pondexter, they've got that. And having survived a first-round battle with Indiana, the Liberty hope to make as much noise as possible in the Garden this month -- since they won't be returning until 2014.

That is, unless work on the famous arena is completed sooner than expected. The renovation project will be done during the summer months only, with the Garden remaining in use during the NBA and NHL seasons.

It was recently reported that, as was long speculated, the Liberty would be relocated to the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., the next three seasons.

As homes-away-from-home go, that almost-new arena is very nice. It opened in October 2007 and is just a couple of blocks from Newark Penn Station. Admittedly, it's not the Garden and Manhattan, and that is going to put additional transit burden on many Liberty fans. But considering everything else they've dealt with over the years, they'll probably adjust.

Of course, when this season ends, Liberty coach Anne Donovan is relocating to New Jersey, too. Not with the Liberty though; she'll assume her full duties as coach at Seton Hall.

So while there's not a feeling of "last chance" for the Liberty by any means, there is a sense of trying to put a happy ending on a season after which there will be significant change.

Standing in the way of New York's goal next is the now-hot-again Dream … or at least they were hot the last time we saw them. That was Aug. 27, when they finished their sweep against top-seeded Washington.

Like the Liberty with Pondexter -- who averaged 27.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists in New York's three playoff games -- the Dream also have had their superstar in top form in the postseason.

Though it might seem a little like a dim memory now, Angel McCoughtry lit up the Mystics for a combined 49 points, 14 rebounds and seven steals in two games.

She and the Dream have had plenty of time for practice to make perfect, although they don't need to be "perfect" to win this series. Just really good. The teams split their season series 2-2.

Now it's down to a best-of-three showdown between a WNBA staple franchise and one that has made strides to getting its legs under it by reaching the playoffs in consecutive years after that inaugural-season dud.

And there's just a feeling that this series could be something pretty special.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.