<
>

Three strengths for each playoff team

When "Inception" premiered here in the Heartland earlier this summer, I didn't race out to see the sci-fi mind-bender film the first chance I had. That would have been at 11:30 a.m. Please. I exercised restraint. I waited until the 2:35 p.m. showing.

Some people thought it was contrived or confusing or both. But I think if you just accept the admittedly absurd premise, the movie was quite good.

If you haven't seen it but plan to, don't worry. I won't spoil anything here. I'll just fill you in on a few details. Leonardo DiCaprio and his cohorts are hired to go into a businessman's dream -- I won't even attempt to explain how they do that -- to try to "plant" an idea there that will be beneficial to one of the guy's main rivals.

The idea? To break up his empire and sell it off. The key is, they are introducing this notion to his subconscious dream state -- so when he wakes up, he'll be convinced it's his idea and then act on it. Just as his rival wants him to do.

In the interest of fair play and all that jazz, no WNBA coach would ever think of doing such a fiendishly clever thing: to put the "wrong" ideas in their counterpart's head about how to face his or her team. Never, never, never.

But … if they did, what misinformation might they want the "Inception" team to plant? Suffice to say, it would be something like, "We should just let Cappie Pondexter get her points, you know? How many can she possibly score if we don't guard her? Fifteen? Sixteen?"

In three of the playoff series, the teams faced each other on the final weekend of the regular season. In the other, the last meeting was just a week ago. So because their impressions of each other are all so fresh, the "Inception" crew will have to work particularly hard to successfully plant bad ideas that the coaches will then vigorously try to sell to their dubious teams.

No. 1 Washington versus No. 4 Atlanta

• Game 1: Dream at Mystics, 7 p.m. ET Wednesday (NBA TV) | Series schedule

Of course, we have to start this "Inception" thing with the series that involves a franchise nicknamed the "Dream."

The Mystics come into the postseason with a full head of steam, having won six in a row. Atlanta, meanwhile, enters in sort of a fog, having lost six of its past seven.

(The Mystics and the Dream share an interesting historical link, by the way: As expansion teams coming into the WNBA a decade apart, they endured putrid inaugural seasons. Washington went 3-27 in 1998; Atlanta 4-30 in 2008.)

Both were playoff teams last year, with the Mystics being swept by Indiana and the Dream doing the same against now-defunct Detroit.

Atlanta got off to a hot start this season, winning its first six games. It has been hard to pinpoint why the Dream have fallen off in August, but Atlanta will have to figure it out quickly -- or it won't be able to extend its season to September.

Inception on Atlanta's Marynell Meadors:

1. What do we really have to be worried about? Alana Beard's not playing this season.

2. Never mind Katie Smith, Nakia Sanford and Chasity Melvin. They're so old, they probably know what a cassette tape is!

3. I'm sure I heard somewhere that Crystal Langhorne isn't really big enough.

Inception on Washington's Julie Plank:

1. Go right at the Dream's main weakness: the interior. All they have is 6-foot-4 Sancho Lyttle, 6-5 Erika de Souza, 6-5 Yelena Leuchanka and 6-7 Alison Bales.

2. Angel McCoughtry will melt down. It's not as if she got past those moments of competitive pique in her early years at Louisville, led the Cardinals to the NCAA championship game, became WNBA rookie of the year and blossomed into a team leader.

3. Point guard Shalee Lehning is averaging only 3.7 points; how much can she hurt you when the ball's in her hands?

No. 2 New York versus No. 3 Indiana

• Game 1: Fever at Liberty, 7 p.m. ET Thursday (NBA TV) | Series schedule

They split their season series, with the slower-starting and faster-finishing Liberty losing the first two meetings and winning the second two.

A decade ago, Liberty coach Anne Donovan got her start in the WNBA guiding the then-expansion Fever. After that, she went to the WNBA Finals with Charlotte in 2001, then won the Finals with Seattle in 2004.

However, when this season ends, Donovan will leave the Liberty and return to the college game, taking over at Seton Hall.

Indiana's Lin Dunn guided the Fever to Game 5 of an exceptionally well-played Finals series against Phoenix last year, and she remembers how much damage former Mercury star Pondexter -- now with New York -- can do.

If only the "Inception" team could make Dunn forget that …

Inception on Indiana's Lin Dunn:

1. Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Plenette Pierson are with the Shock. And the Shock are still in Detroit. And Detroit, a past roadblock for us, isn't in the playoffs.

2. Leilani Mitchell is just an extra from the cast of "Wicked" who wandered over to Madison Square Garden.

3. Pondexter is really only effective in Phoenix's system.

Inception on New York's Anne Donovan:

1. No concern about the possibility that Jessica Davenport could contribute off the bench. That's why the Liberty were wise to just waive her last season.

2. There's always the chance that Tamika Catchings will have one of her lackluster days. You know how inconsistent her effort is.

3. Seton Hall needs me … right now!

No. 1 Seattle versus No. 4 Los Angeles

• Game 1: Sparks at Storm, 11 p.m. ET Wednesday (ESPN2) | Series schedule

Once upon a time, the fans at Seattle's KeyArena chanted "Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.!" with particular gusto, as Sparks center Lisa Leslie expertly played the villain's role. Now the future Hall of Famer is retired … but the Storm fans still love to "beat L.A."

In fact, Seattle did it in all five meetings this season. However, the most recent matchup, in the finale Saturday, was the closest game between these teams this season: a 76-75 Storm victory at KeyArena in which Tanisha Wright's jump shot with 50 seconds left was the difference.

The Storm are perfect at home this season and clinched home-court advantage for the duration of the playoffs early enough to rest their starters some in the past two weeks.

Seattle won the 2004 WNBA title but hasn't advanced past the first round of the playoffs in the subsequent five seasons. The past two years, the Storm have been without injured star Lauren Jackson, who is again the MVP favorite. Nobody's more eager to get going in the postseason than she is.

But as Saturday's game showed, the Sparks aren't just going to meekly get out of the Storm's way. They want to make it hard for even the top team to "beat L.A."

Inception on Los Angeles' Jennifer Gillom:

1. We'll play hack-a-Jackson to slow her down. It's not as if she's shooting better than 90 percent from the line or anything.

2. Jackson and Sue Bird will never really get the hang of the pick-and-roll.

3. Beyond Jackson and Bird, whom do the Storm even have?

Inception on Seattle's Brian Agler:

1. Once Candace Parker was lost for the season to shoulder surgery, there was no way the Sparks could make the playoffs. I don't know why the schedule says we're playing them next.

2. Even if we somehow are playing L.A., the team with the way better record always wins.

3. Tina Thompson, DeLisha Milton-Jones and Ticha Penicheiro are so old, they probably trade cassette tapes with Katie Smith, Nakia Sanford and Chasity Melvin!

No. 2 Phoenix versus No. 3 San Antonio

• Game 1: Silver Stars at Mercury, 9 p.m. ET Thursday (ESPN2) | Series schedule

In the offseason, Phoenix lost Cappie Pondexter, as she insisted on going to the bright lights and big city of New York. Sure, fine, whatever. Can hotshot New York City ever boast about it being 112 degrees at 7 a.m.? We think not.

Diana Taurasi, the 2009 MVP, was determined that the Mercury would not do what it had in 2008 -- that is, have a letdown after a championship season. Well, she has done her part to avoid that, winning the WNBA's scoring title for a fourth time.

Candice Dupree, who came from Chicago in the three-way trade that sent Pondexter to the Liberty, has played well, as have Penny Taylor and DeWanna Bonner. So what gives with a 15-19 record? This Mercury season has seemed like one of those All-Star ensemble casts on which there are outstanding individual performances, but the movie itself isn't very good.

However, imagine the cast quickly putting the disappointing film behind it and immediately starting on a promising new movie. That's what the playoffs might be like for Phoenix.

Meanwhile, in San Antonio, with Vickie Johnson and Erin Perperoglou retired, Shanna Crossley traded to Tulsa and Ann Wauters not playing in the WNBA this season, the Silver Stars were without some familiar faces.

They got a needed boost from picking up veteran forward Chamique Holdsclaw. After she'd essentially left Atlanta with no choice but to waive her just as the season got under way, Holdsclaw did play well for San Antonio. Unfortunately, she suffered an Achilles tendon injury Aug. 15 and is done for the season. Somehow, Becky Hammon and Sophia Young still managed to drag the Silver Stars' carcass into the postseason and reanimate it. At least for one more series.

Inception on San Antonio's Sandy Brondello:

1. We just beat Phoenix on Sunday. Sure, Diana Taurasi sat out to rest, but how much difference can one player make?

2. OK, Penny Taylor didn't play Sunday, either, but still …

3. I really have that feeling that Becky Hammon is due for a couple of 50-point games.

Inception on Phoenix's Corey Gaines:

1. Not sure we can rebound with the Silver Stars -- they're 12th in the league on the boards!

2. For that matter, who averaged more points per game this season than San Antonio? Only 10 teams!

3. There are 34 teams in the WNBA, after all. Or … is it 34 games in the regular season? You know, it's weird, but I just woke up really confused.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.