The conference finals open Wednesday in the East (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) when New York plays its second game at Madison Square Garden in as many days.
No. 1 New York (23-11 in the regular season) vs. No. 3 Indiana (20-14)
No offense to Washington, but from a league visibility standpoint, having New York in the Eastern Conference finals is a boost to the WNBA. But can the Liberty make it to the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2002? The team trying to stop them has more playoff experience as a franchise -- 11 consecutive postseason appearances -- and beat the Liberty four of five times during the regular season.
Key matchup: The Fever offense vs. New York defense. The Liberty were the league's top defense during the regular season, allowing 71.1 PPG. But the Fever scored at least 80 points in each of their four victories over the Liberty, and 79 in their loss. In their first-round series victory over Chicago, the Fever scored 89 and 100 points in their two victories.
Even though they prevailed in their series against Washington, the Liberty did not guard the 3-point line as well as they wanted to. The Mystics shot 44.6 percent from behind the arc in those three games (25-of-56), and that's something New York coach Bill Laimbeer and veteran guard Tanisha Wright pointed out as needing to improve for the Liberty to make a long playoff run.
The Fever shot just 29.8 percent from 3-point range against the Sky. But the disparity between their long-range performance in their two playoff victories over Chicago -- Indiana was 1-of-16 in one, and 10-of-20 in the other -- shows that if one thing isn't working for the Fever, they will find something that is.
X factor: Indiana forward/center Erlana Larkins. She has been limited by injuries all season, but is anybody surprised to see her step forward during the playoffs? Nope; she has a history of doing that. In the three playoff games against Chicago, Larkins had 30 points, 29 rebounds and shot 12-of-16 from the floor.
Larkins' presence inside might become an even bigger factor if New York is again without center Carolyn Swords, who has a foot injury. She was important in the Liberty's Game 2 victory over Washington, with 12 points and six rebounds, but did not play in Game 3.
Regular-season series: The Fever won 4-1; the only game the Liberty took was 86-79 at Madison Square Garden on June 9.
Voepel prediction: Fever in two games. New York has the home-court advantage in this series, but Indiana has an extra day of rest before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. The Fever ended their series against Chicago on Monday night, while the Liberty had to battle the Mystics to the wire on Tuesday. Playing back-to-back nights is not unusual in the WNBA; New York did it five times during the regular season. In those instances, the Liberty won the second of those games three times and lost it twice. If the Fever are able to "steal" one at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, then they will take a lot of momentum back to Bankers Life Fieldhouse for Sunday's Game 2.
Michelle Smith prediction: Fever in three games. Tamika Catchings is setting the tone for a confident, playoff-experienced team. The Fever know how to win on the road and Catchings will get one more shot at another title.