- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Seattle clinched its spot in the WNBA finals by finishing a sweep of Phoenix on Sunday, before the Eastern Conference finals had even tipped off. But it sure didn't take long for Atlanta to join the Storm.
The Dream, in just the franchise' third season of existence, won Game 2 against New York 105-93 in Atlanta on Tuesday, sending them to a matchup against Seattle.
"When it came time to play, this team was ready," Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors said. "I'm not talking about one or two players, I'm talking about all 11 of them. We feel like we are a very deserving team because we have worked so hard."
The finals will match the Storm, the West's No. 1 seed that had the best regular-season record in the league at 28-6, versus the Dream, the East's No. 4 seed that finished 19-15.
Atlanta's record is less impressive. But no one would dispute a very deserving team fought through in a rough-and-tumble Eastern Conference to emerge.
All four East teams in the playoffs had been in first place at some point during the season, with little separating them. The Dream actually had the worst conclusion to the regular season, losing six of their last seven.
However, the Dream have raced through the playoffs, first sweeping the No. 1 seed, Washington, and now the No. 2, New York. In the four games, Atlanta has averaged 95.5 points.
"They might be the most athletic team in the league," Seattle coach Brian Agler said of the Dream after watching the conclusion of the East finals. "What makes them so difficult to defend is they have great size around the basket, they're one of the best rebounding teams.
"But they also have people on the perimeter who can score, great athletes. So you just can't focus on their size, and that makes them even more dangerous because they play in so many one-on-one situations."
Indeed, there's no way to focus on the Dream's post players when Atlanta's perimeter players are so good and come into the finals red-hot. Angel McCoughtry scored a playoff-record 42 points Tuesday, outdoing even her New York superstar counterpart Cappie Pondexter's 36.
Dream starting guards Iziane Castro Marques and Coco Miller combined for 30 points, six assists and eight rebounds.
Of course, Seattle -- which won the 2004 WNBA title -- has its own set of superstars, with league MVP Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird and Swin Cash. The Storm were one of the league's best defensive teams all season and, as Agler said, that will be tested by Atlanta.
The teams met twice in the regular season, with the Storm winning both: 90-72 on June 1 in Seattle and 80-70 on August 10 in Atlanta.
The Storm had to try to slow Phoenix's high-octane offense in the Western Conference finals, and now Seattle will have a similar task against Atlanta.
"Atlanta gets a lot of their scoring out of their defense, scoring off your turnovers," Agler said. "Phoenix does the same thing, but Phoenix is also so organized in how they run their transition that they'll get you even after your score. But there are a lot of similarities in how fast a pace they want to play.
"And McCoughtry and Izi are quite a bit like Diana [Taurasi] and Penny [Taylor] from the standpoint of if they have the ball in the open floor, they are going to look to take it to the basket. And Armintie Price is that way, as well."
Price is an example of the Dream's talented depth. She did not start during the regular season but has started all four playoff games. The starting lineup switch -- subbing Price and Miller for Erika de Souza and Shalee Lehning -- made the Dream's first five as a whole smaller and quicker from the tip, while still utilizing what the former starters have to offer.
De Souza especially had a lot Tuesday, with 15 points, six rebounds and five blocked shots. Plus she showed a lot of fire as she implored the Dream's fans to make noise.
By the end of the game, no on had to ask them; Philips Arena was rocking. Just two years ago this month, the Dream finished its inaugural season 4-30. Meadors went to work restructuring her team, and made the most of regular, expansion and dispersal drafts. Last year, Atlanta improved to 18-16 and lost in the playoffs' first round.
"I really felt like we would do what we've done," Meadors said. "It is probably surprising to people that a third-year team has done what we have, but I've been around the game a long time and know what players can do. And I tried to get the ones I felt would fit our system, and they've played really, really well."
This WNBA finals series also has an important side note: It is the first time both participants are franchises that are owned independently, not by NBA teams. Further, the owners are women.
After Ron Terwilliger started the Dream, Kathy Betty bought the franchise in October. In January 2008, four Seattle businesswomen formed an ownership group, Force 10 Hoops, that kept the Storm in that city, while the NBA's SuperSonics were moved to Oklahoma City.
In both cases, the teams' success is making those investments pay off. The WNBA didn't get the finals back in the coveted New York market -- the Liberty last made it that far in 2002 -- but the Dream's playoff run could help solidify that young franchise.
With Atlanta being in the heart of the SEC -- long a dominant league in women's basketball -- this finals appearance might put some Miracle-Grow on the Dream's roots in the city.
"There is a lot of great talent for these finals," Agler said. "I'm extremely impressed with Atlanta's team. I give their coaching staff credit: They adjusted and made some changes to their starting lineup going into the playoffs that have really paid off dividends."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.
Seattle was the most dominant team in the league this season. Now, Atlanta, perhaps the WNBA's most athletic squad, stands in the way of the Storm's second championship.