The WNBA playoffs open Thursday after a regular season in which most of the teams in the league struggled merely to finish with a winning record. Two teams -- Minnesota and Phoenix -- stood head and shoulders above the rest through the entire summer, and the question for the postseason is whether anyone other than the Mercury or the Lynx stand a chance of hoisting the championship trophy.
While the other six teams -- including five with sub.-500 records -- try to turn that into a debate, we take a look at five questions facing the WNBA playoffs.
1. Can Phoenix finish what it has started?
Only five times in the 17-year history of the WNBA has the team with the best record in the regular season failed to win a WNBA title, and only twice since 2007. So it stands to reason that the Mercury, with their league-record 29 wins, would be the overwhelming favorite in this postseason field.
The Mercury's record-setting season is the result of of star power -- with Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner putting on outstanding campaigns -- improved defense under coach Sandy Brondello, offensive balance (all five starters average double figures) and very good health.
Phoenix's starting lineup has been intact almost the entire season. Penny Taylor's return to regular status -- she started 24 games this season and appeared in 33 -- has been a huge boost to the Mercury. Each of the other starters has played at least 33 of their 34 games. That's the kind of lineup consistency that most teams in the league, including closest challenger Minnesota, would kill for.
On the face, it seems that if Phoenix stays in this healthy, productive place for the next few weeks, it's the Mercury's title to lose.
2. What is up with Minnesota?
The Lynx lost three in a row before rallying to win their regular-season finale against last-place Tulsa, and it makes one wonder whether the Lynx are in the best place to begin their defense of the WNBA championship.
They rank sixth in points allowed per game, and it's not the kind of defense that led them to titles in 2011 and 2013. They have surrendered late leads and lost games in streaks that have been uncharacteristic of Cheryl Reeve's teams.
But Minnesota -- which has dealt with more than its share of injuries this season -- finished with at least 25 wins for four consecutive seasons, a WNBA record. And if they have their starters on the floor, they could push the Mercury to the limit.
Seimone Augustus is a question mark as she battles swelling in her knee. The star missed Friday's game at San Antonio, but came back on Sunday to score 14 against the Shock.
Still, Minnesota has Maya Moore, who scored in double figures in all 34 games this season and should be the regular-season MVP. And that is not a bad place to start.
3. Is Atlanta really prepared to challenge for a championship?
On the face, it doesn't appear so. The Dream ended the season with a loss in Connecticut, a game in which they turned over the ball 26 times. It was only the latest troubling performance for an Atlanta team that essentially backed into first place in the Eastern Conference as the rest of the teams in the division struggled to the finish line.
The Dream have lost 10 of their past 14 games. On Sunday, they scored a season-low 55 points.
But they've also at times looked like the team that reached the WNBA Finals twice in the past three seasons. They found a way to beat Phoenix earlier this week, even without leading scorer Angel McCoughtry on the floor, and they did it with bench contributions they are going to need plenty more of in the playoffs.
McCoughtry's foot tendinitis is worrisome. The Dream simply can't hope to get back to the Finals without her at her best, and even then, they might not be consistently good enough to take a five-game series from either Phoenix or Minnesota.
4. If not the Dream, anyone else in the East?
Indiana is just two years removed from its 2012 title run, Tamika Catchings is back in the lineup full time and Lin Dunn is coaching out the string, so it would stand to reason that the veteran Fever would want to win one more for their beloved coach.
Chicago played so well to start this season with Elena Delle Donne on the floor, struggled mightily without her and found a way to rally to close the season when she returned. The Sky have a ton of talent, including Epiphanny Prince and Sylvia Fowles, and point guard Courtney Vandersloot will be back in time to participate in the playoffs.
On paper, both of these teams look like they are in better shape for a good postseason run than the Dream at this point. Neither, however, look consistent enough to win a title. Yet.
5. Which team could take everything we think we know and turn it on its ear?
San Antonio finished the regular season with three straight wins and are rallying behind retiring star (and now NBA pioneer) Becky Hammon.
The Stars, who missed the playoffs last year, are doing so many things right at this crucial point in the season: getting strong scoring (their past three games have been well above their season average, including a 92-point effort against the Lynx) and big performances in the paint from Jayne Appel, who pulled down a franchise-record 20 rebounds against Los Angeles last week.
The Stars won't have home-court advantage but have played nearly .500 basketball on the road this season and have the ability and the mojo to make a first-round matchup very interesting.