Spot in WNBA Finals up for grabs

Angel McCoughtry's Dream went 3-1 vs. the Fever in 2013, but she knows Indiana is playing better now. AP Photo/John Amis

The WNBA's MVP award winner, Candace Parker, and rookie of the year, Elena Delle Donne, already have been eliminated from the WNBA playoffs. Which leaves us left in this postseason with …

Gee, at least four players who all could have been the 2013 MVP. And the rookie who was picked No. 1 in April's draft. In other words, the WNBA conference finals, which begin Thursday night, are not lacking for star power. They are saturated with it.

"I love the fact that it's not always a shoo-in for the team that's got the MVP to win the championship," Minnesota's Maya Moore said. "I think that just speaks to the level of the WNBA and the talent that we have. The great quality of teams, the fight of the teams, and the big plays that people make to try to propel their team to a championship."

This, in fact, will be the third year in a row the league's regular-season MVP won't even be in the WNBA Finals.

Moore is one of those players who could have been MVP, and her Lynx will host Phoenix in the Western Conference finals (ESPN2 and WatchESPN, 9 p.m. ET). The Mercury are led by another MVP-worthy standout, Diana Taurasi, plus Brittney Griner, who hit the shot that won the first-round series for Phoenix and knocked Los Angeles' Parker out of the postseason.

In Game 1 of the East finals Thursday night, Indiana and Atlanta meet (ESPN2 and WatchESPN, 7 p.m. ET) for the third year in a row in the playoffs. The defending champion Fever, as has been the case for the last decade-plus, have annual MVP candidate Tamika Catchings leading the way. The Dream's sparkplug is Angel McCoughtry, who led the league in scoring and also was on the MVP short list.

That said, McCoughty made the all-WNBA second team, released Wednesday, not the first team. Which only goes to prove Moore's point. When the player who had the highest combined average of points, rebounds, and assists -- McCoughtry, at 21.5, 5.3, and 4.4 -- is on the second team, you know this is a talent-laden league.

The MVP vote was extremely close, and had its critics -- which would have been the case no matter how it turned out. The results didn't mean the voters are idiots, just that they had a difficult task that could be second-guessed many ways. (Aside: Of course, when my favorite actress from my favorite TV show last year -- Sarah Paulson of "American Horror Story: Asylum" -- didn't win an Emmy award Sunday, I threw a little fit and yelled at the television, proclaiming the voters to be clueless and the entire Emmys show a joke. So, you know, I do totally get the WNBA fans expressing their ire when they think their favorites are short-changed.)

Ultimately, though, McCoughtry put it best: "Congratulations to Candace for winning [MVP]. I think right now everybody's focused on the playoffs and not really worried about awards. Everybody just wants to win a championship at this point."

Indeed, that's what it's all about to the league's best players: winning titles. McCoughtry doesn't have one yet, although the Dream have been to the WNBA Finals twice (2010, '11). Catchings won her first title last year, Taurasi has two (2007, '09), and Moore won as a rookie in 2011.

One of those four Olympic gold medalists is going to celebrate a championship this season. But they'll have to battle through the conference finals just for the chance to play for a title.

In the East, the No. 4 seed Fever are coming off a sweep of top-seeded Chicago in the first round. The No. 2 seed Dream had their backs against the wall after losing the opening game of their series with Washington, but then beat the Mystics in Games 2 and 3.

The Dream won the regular-season series against the Fever 3-1, but McCoughtry said that's kind of irrelevant.

"We can take the positives from it … but they're playing a lot, lot different now," McCoughtry said of how good the Fever looked in dispatching the Sky. "We've just got to come out with focus and intensity defensively to contain them. I mean, really, the seed doesn't even matter anymore. Chicago's already out, and they had that awesome season."

The Sky were not able to contain the Fever's dribble penetration, which set the tone offensively for Indiana in both games. And the Fever's defense was stalwart, too. However, Indiana coach Lin Dunn points out that the Dream are very different from the Sky, including the fact that Atlanta has the playoff experience that Chicago lacked.

"I think whoever controls the boards has a real good chance of winning," Dunn said. "The other thing is defense. If we defend at a high level and we rebound, we've got a chance to win. If we don't do those two things, we're going to get our britches blown out of the building."

While you linger for a second on that vivid imagery, we'll note that there are several players you might project as "X factors" in this series, aside from McCoughtry and Catchings.

For instance, how about the battle inside between Atlanta's Erika de Souza and Indiana's Erlana Larkins? The 6-foot-5 de Souza is taller and the more accomplished offensive player, but the 6-1 Larkins just held her own against Chicago's 6-6 Sylvia Fowles.

"De Souza is one of the premier centers in the world," Dunn said. "She presents a real challenge for us. We'll think about her just like we did Fowles. She can go off and single-handedly beat you.

"Larkins … she's not like Fowles or de Souza. She's blue-collar, undersized, would rather pass, rebound, and defend than score. But she's a warrior. She's big, she's strong, she's physical. She's not tall, but she plays tall."

In contrast, Phoenix's Griner is very tall (6 feet, 8 inches) but not as strong or physical as she will be after some more time playing/training professionally. She has had injury issues this season, and Corey Gaines' ineffectiveness in utilizing Griner -- offensively or defensively -- was one of the reasons he was let go in August.

Under coach Russ Pennell, the Mercury have played better defense, and Griner has fit in more effectively. Her game-winning shot Monday against the Sparks is bound to be a confidence booster, too.

"I've told her to relax, have fun, and play," Pennell said of the weight that Griner felt as the top pick. "What I've really tried to do is take pressure off of her instead of putting more on her.

"I don't think she's as polished as she will be. She certainly needs a year in the weight room; she's not strong enough yet to play in this league on a consistent basis and hold her positioning."

However, Pennell said that purely skills-wise, Griner is very good already. And when you also consider how well Taurasi and Candice Dupree run the two-player game, plus how DeWanna Bonner can go off on foes offensively, you know that the Lynx need to play very well defensively to make their third consecutive appearance in the WNBA Finals.

Yes, Minnesota did sweep Phoenix 5-0 in the regular season, but the series was completed by the end of July, when Gaines was still coach. This will be Pennell's first time matching up with the No. 1 seed Lynx.

"I think the main thing is trying to protect the paint more," Moore said of the difference she has seen in Phoenix defensively under Pennell. "In the last series, they were going to force L.A. to beat them with jumpers. We have to be able to hit the open shot."

Moore and Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen were both named to the WNBA first team Wednesday, and Minnesota -- which swept Seattle in the first round -- still has to be regarded as the favorite to win the championship this season.

Minnesota had the league's best record, and the Lynx likely won't need any particular reminders from coach Cheryl Reeve about staying aggressive. The title got away from them last year against Indiana in part because they were outhustled and outdefended at key moments in that series.

These are four teams with veteran stars, and all of them know this won't be easy.

"It's anybody's game. It's up in the air," Moore said. "That's why it's so compelling to watch the playoffs."