This is the first time since 2006 -- and just the fourth time overall -- that the team with the best record in the league did not reach the WNBA Finals. So while the New York Liberty -- who went 23-11 this season -- must dwell on what went wrong in the Eastern Conference finals, the Indiana Fever move on to try to knock off the team with the second-best record this season: the West champion Minnesota Lynx, who were 22-12 in the regular season.
This is a repeat of the 2012 WNBA Finals, with a very similar cast of main characters, although there are a few new faces in this matchup.
It's a meeting of head coaches of different experience levels. Cheryl Reeve has guided the Lynx to their fourth WNBA Finals appearance in the last five years. Indiana's Stephanie White is in her first season as the Fever's head coach, but she was on the bench as an assistant during the team's 2012 championship season.
No. 3 seed Indiana is trying -- again -- to make a statement for the Eastern Conference. Indiana is the only East team to win a title since now-defunct Detroit did so in 2008. And the Fever are also the only East team to win a game in the WNBA Finals since then. Atlanta was swept in the 2010, '11 and '13 Finals, as was Chicago last year. In 2009 Indiana lost 3-2 to Phoenix, and in 2012 won 3-1 over Minnesota.
While most were expecting the Lynx to get this far again in 2015, the Fever are more of surprise. They showed flashes of being a really good team during the season, especially in August, but they entered the playoffs with some question marks. Yet, in classic Fever fashion, here they are again.
So let's look at the upcoming WNBA Finals from a few more angles as we get set for Sunday's opener (ABC, 3 p.m. ET).
Why they'll win the WNBA title
Minnesota: The Lynx have all those Olympians, including Maya Moore, who's scoring 100 points per game in the 2015 playoffs (OK, actually it's 27.8, but you get the point; she has been fantastic). The Lynx have home-court advantage. They have to pay back Indiana for beating them in the 2012 Finals. They won both meetings this summer with the Fever, near the start (June 6) and end (Sept. 4) of the regular season. The Lynx are an experienced squad that is as good as -- if not better than -- the Fever in regard to team chemistry.
Indiana: The Fever have that most relentless of competitors, Tamika Catchings. In the East finals, the Fever were able to play even better defense than the team that did that best during the regular season, New York. They are on an "upset" roll, having beaten higher-seeded Chicago and New York already in the playoffs. The Fever have the experience of winning a championship over the Lynx. The Fever at 12 strong are the best they've been all season.
Three key matchups
1. In the paint: Many thought that once the Lynx acquired center Sylvia Fowles in a trade in late July, the WNBA title was definitely headed back to Minnesota. And it still might be, because she has added another dimension to the Lynx attack. But Indiana has the capacity to cause the Lynx trouble inside.
It helps the Fever a lot to have the playoff-ready version of Erlana Larkins. She appeared in just 21 regular-season games as she battled injuries. But in the postseason, she looks like the Larkins who helped the Fever win it all in 2012. She is averaging 8.2 points and 7.3 rebounds in Indiana's six postseason games, compared to her regular-season averages of 3.5 and 4.2.
The Fever also benefit from whatever time they can get from Lynetta Kizer, who has also had injury woes. With her size and strength at 6-foot-4, she's an important player defensively for the Fever.
All that said, the Lynx should still have the advantage inside. Fowles and Rebekkah Brunson have averaged a combined 19.2 rebounds for the Lynx in their five playoff games thus far. Indiana coach Stephanie White and her staff know they will have to come up with a game plan against Minnesota's bigs that is much different than what they had to do against Chicago in the first round, and somewhat different than their approach versus New York in the East finals. If Fowles is able to really establish herself offensively against the Fever, it will be very difficult for Indiana to win this series.
2. Beyond the arc: The Lynx have averaged 3.8 made 3-pointers in their five playoff games; the Fever have averaged 5.2 in their six. That makes sense, since during the regular season, the 3-pointer was a more important weapon for Indiana, which made 182 at a 36.0 percent clip, than for Minnesota, which made 139 at 33.3 percent.
The bulk of Minnesota's 3-point attack comes from one person: Moore, who made 69 in the regular season and has 14 so far in the playoffs. Indiana, on the other hand, has several 3-point shooters, including Marissa Coleman, Shenise Johnson, Briann January and Catchings.
The 3-pointer was a factor in the Fever's two victories over New York, and Indiana likely will need to hit 3s in order to top the Lynx.
3. Moore vs. Catchings: When it's all said and done, both these players will be regarded as "best ever" on everybody's lists. Right now, Moore at 26 is in the prime of her career and seems to be making a case that she deserved a second WNBA MVP award. Catchings is a decade older than Moore, but she still seems able to find another gear.
In terms of individual statistics for the WNBA Finals, it's a safe bet that Moore will have bigger numbers. But one of Catchings' main strengths has always been inspiring her teammates to play better than even they knew they could.
That's not to suggest that Moore doesn't also motivate her teammates, but they tend to do it in different ways.
Who has the edge?
Backcourt: How do you not pick the Lynx, led by point guard Lindsay Whalen? Well, it's tough but ... we're leaning toward Indiana here. January, Coleman, Johnson and Shavonte Zellous have worked together really well and bring a lot of energy to the Fever.
Frontcourt: Gotta go with the Lynx here, as Fowles, Brunson and Moore are an extremely talented trio offensively and defensively. Part of how the Fever beat New York is they didn't let rookie Liberty center Kiah Stokes repeat her 21-point Game 1 performance. But Indiana won't be facing any interior rookies for Minnesota.
Coaching: Maybe this is a copout, but we're calling this a draw. Yes, White is less experienced as a head coach, but she is a former guard in the WNBA and has a very good understanding of strategy. Plus, she has assistants Gary Kloppenburg, a former head coach in the WNBA, and Gail Goestenkors, who was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame this summer for her extremely successful college coaching career. On the Lynx bench is Reeve, who is going for her third WNBA championship and knows the league inside and out, going back to her days as an assistant coach at Charlotte, Cleveland and Detroit. Reeve's assistants, Jim Petersen and Shelley Patterson, have been with her throughout Minnesota's ascent to the top of the league; Petersen actually was an assistant for the Lynx even before Reeve took over the team.
The Lynx certainly will not make the mistake of underestimating Indiana. We're not saying that happened in 2012, but that memory still burns for Minnesota. But while Indiana is the lower seed here and more the surprise to be in the WNBA Finals, don't think the Fever feel out of place. They believe they belong here, and they aren't satisfied with just making it this far. So who wins it all? We'll go with the Lynx in four games (in the best-of-five series).