For the fifth straight year, the Eastern Conference will be represented in the WNBA finals by either the Indiana Fever or Atlanta Dream. One of them will be a win away from that familiar stage after Thursday night's opener of this best-of-three series in Atlanta.
Still, the conference finals can be viewed as a matchup of teams that weren't taken quite as seriously as years past entering the postseason.
While the second-seeded Dream began the playoffs having lost 16 of 23, the fourth-seeded Fever were the only team to qualify for the postseason with a losing record (16-18).
"What we did in the regular season really doesn't matter," Indiana coach Lin Dunn said after her team's first-round sweep of top-seeded Chicago. "I think the upper hand we had was experience. Postseason experience, championship experience. Don't underestimate the value of that."
While the Sky might have lacked that ingredient, the Fever's next opponent does not.
The Dream host Game 1 looking to advance to the finals for the third time in four seasons for a crack at the title that eluded them in 2010 and 2011.
The Fever are trying to defend last year's championship, albeit on quite a different kind of run after finishing the 2012 regular season 10 games over .500.
The teams met in the first round last year. Indiana dropped the series opener before scoring a season-best 103 points in Game 2 and closing out Atlanta at home in Game 3.
"They are a tough team that doesn't beat itself," Dream coach Fred Williams said. "They have some veteran players and they are a team that is going to come after you on the boards."
Atlanta was the team in the first round this year to face elimination in consecutive games after dropping Game 1 to Washington. The Dream took Game 2 with a strong defensive and rebounding effort, then won 80-72 on Monday to close out the Mystics.
It was their first shooting night over 40 percent since their second-to-last regular-season game Sept. 13 at Chicago.
"In the first game, we didn't have a sense of urgency," WNBA scoring champ Angel McCoughtry said. "(In Games 2 and 3), everyone played with so much heart. It was definitely a big difference, and that is what it takes to win a championship."
McCoughtry had 13 points and seven assists Monday, but the 4-for-19 shooting night was a continuation of a cold streak after she went 12 for 43 in the first two games of the series. She failed to score more than 20 points in any of those games after averaging 21.5 during the regular season.
Erika de Souza and Tiffany Hayes helped make up for her Game 3 struggles with 18 points apiece. De Souza averaged 13.7 rebounds in the series.
The Fever completed their sweep of the Sky on Sunday with a 79-57 win, matching their largest margin of victory of the season.
Tamika Catchings scored a game-high 18 and had a team-high 12 rebounds while Erlana Larkins added 14 points and 11 boards.
Atlanta won three of four in the regular-season series, including both home games by a combined 25 points.
McCoughtry scored 30 in the most recent matchup and de Souza added 17 with 15 rebounds as the Dream won 89-80 at home Sept. 4.
Catchings averaged 21.0 points in the season series.
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