MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve noticed at the All-Star break that teams in the league were taking a difference view of her Lynx.
Until then, most looked at Minnesota's tremendous start with skepticism. These were the Lynx, after all. The same franchise that hadn't made it to the postseason in six years and had never won a playoff series.
"There was so much talk that we had the best winning percentage," Reeve said. "They became believers. There wasn't the idea that there was going to be some kind of collapse as there had been before."
The Lynx also had Rookie of the Year Maya Moore and a solid group of All-Star players around her.
Minnesota steamrolled the rest of the league, finishing with a 27-7 record that was six games better than the next closest team. The Lynx needed three games to dispatch San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs before decisively sweeping Phoenix in the Western Conference finals to advance to the WNBA Finals against the Atlanta Dream tonight.
Moore said the Lynx knew they had the makings of something special starting in training camp.
"Now we're at a point where we put ourselves in position to reach that ultimate goal," Moore said. "I'm not going to say we're surprised, but it is nice to be so close to get that final goal."
The Dream lost to Seattle in the finals last year, a run that they say prepared them to take on the best team in the league.
"I believe the difference from last year to this year is the fact that we were like, 'Oh my god, we're here!' " Dream star Angel McCoughtry said. "This year is not, 'Oh my god, we're here.' It's 'we're here. Let's go. We're meant to be here.'"
Game 1 of the best-of-five series is tonight in Minneapolis, where the Lynx have managed to gain a solid following in a town that has suffered from the recent failures of the Twins, Vikings and Timberwolves. The lower bowl of Target Center has been close to full for all three home playoff games in the playoffs, and the team is expecting a record crowd on Sunday night.
"The buzz around here is very energizing," Reeve said. "Sunday night we'll have by far our best crowd."
The Lynx and Dream are the two highest scoring teams in these playoffs, the only two teams to average in the 80s. Both love to get up and down the court and flow into transition quickly, taking advantage of their versatility to score in bunches.
The Lynx may be new to this whole championship thing, but one of their youngest players is no stranger to big stages. Moore, the No. 1 overall pick, is one of the most accomplished athletes in NCAA history from her time at Connecticut, but even she said there is a difference at this level.
With All-Stars Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, Moore and Rebekkah Brunson, the Lynx didn't get beat often this season. With so much talent, and finally able to stay healthy all season, the Lynx overwhelmed opponents on both ends of the court, learning how to deal with the expectations along the way.
They went 2-0 against the Dream during the regular season, with a 96-85 win at home and a 77-64 win in Atlanta in June. But both of those games came before the Dream hit their stride.
Atlanta lost seven of its first nine games. The Dream finished the regular season on an 11-3 tear and upset No. 1 seed Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals.
"Been a long time," Dream coach Marynell Meadors said of when the teams played in June. "Seems like it was two years ago. I just feel like we've gotten better, but they've also gotten better. So I think it's going to be a great series."
The Dream won't have starting 6-foot-5 center Erica De Souza for Game 1 while she plays with the Brazilian national team in an Olympic qualifying tournament. She is expected to be back for Game 2, but the Dream seemed to have found something by going with a smaller, quicker lineup.
"We love being the underdog. We do," Meadors said. "One thing about it, we've been there, we know what it takes to win. We've just got to go to play."
Want To Watch?
WHO: Atlanta Dream at Minnesota Lynx.
WHAT: WNBA Finals, Game 1.nWHEN: 8:30 p.m. today.