Storm open playoffs as favorites to win WNBA title

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The Seattle Storm got off to such a dominant start, they clinched the top spot in the Western Conference before the end of July.

With a chance to rest key players down the stretch, the Storm are poised to make a run for their second WNBA championship when they open the playoffs against the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday night.

“Even though as a team we’re proud of the things we’ve done in the regular season, the only thing that really came of it is home-court advantage,” Seattle’s Sue Bird said.

The Storm opened 22-2 to tie 1998 Houston Comets for the best 24-game start in league history. They clinched home-court advantage in the West on July 27 _ with 11 games remaining _ and then lost four of their last 10. Seattle (28-6) tied the league record for wins set by Los Angeles in 2000 and 2001 when teams played a 32-game schedule.

“We have definitely relaxed a little bit _ as much as you don’t want to,” said star forward Lauren Jackson, who missed the playoffs the last two years due to injuries. “It wasn’t a fluke that we won as many games as we did. We have to get back at it and play the game and play it the way we know how.”

The Storm will start against a short-handed Sparks team that has played most of the season without Candace Parker, who has a shoulder injury. Seattle took advantage of Los Angeles (13-21) in the regular season, sweeping the five meetings.

As the only team in the West to finish with a winning record _ second-place Phoenix was 13 games back _ the Storm’s season, including the league’s first 17-0 home record, has created lofty expectations for a franchise that has lost in the first round each year since winning the title in 2004.

“This year’s team is focused on one thing,” Bird said. “At first it was we really wanted home-court advantage. It’s no secret we play better at home. That was our goal, and we accomplished that. Now, it’s on to the next one, which is getting out of the first round. Nobody’s worried about what happened in previous years.”

It was much tighter in the East where three teams entered the final day of the season tied for first place. The New York Liberty were the league’s top team in the second half of the season with a 15-3 record after the All-Star break. They tied Washington atop the conference, but one of those second-half losses came at Washington last Friday and gave the Mystics the tiebreaker for the conference’s top seed.

New York finished 22-12 to set a franchise record for wins one year after compiling 21 losses in the second-worst season in franchise history. The remarkable turnaround came after an offseason roster overhaul in which the team added Cappie Pondexter, Nicole Powell and Taj McWilliams-Franklin, and then traded for reserve forward Plenette Pierson early in the season.

“What happened in the regular season doesn’t matter any more,” said Pondexter, who won two titles in the last three years with Phoenix. “We’re just going to come out fighting and try to get past this first round.”

The Liberty’s first round will begin Thursday night when they host defending Eastern Conference champion Indiana (21-13). The teams split their four-game season series, with New York winning the last two _ including a 21-point victory at home last Tuesday.

The Fever entered the final week of the season in first place after a five-game winning streak, but then lost their last three games to fall one game behind Washington and New York.

“It’s a new season now,” Fever coach Lin Dunn said. “We know we’re in for a dogfight with New York.”

Washington also set a franchise record for victories (22) despite playing the entire season without All-Star guard Alana Beard. Crystal Langhorne and Monique Currie stepped up with career-best season, with Langhorne nearly averaging a double-double (16.3 points and 9.7 rebounds), and Katie Smith signed as a free agent and provided strong veteran leadership.

The Mystics host fourth-place Atlanta (19-15) on Wednesday night in the opener of their series. Washington won three of four in the season series, including the finale on Sunday to secure the No. 1 seed.

“Starting out at home is very advantageous,” Currie said. “We had a little slump after the All-Star Game, but we kept working and things are really clicking now.”

The third-year Dream are in the playoffs for the second straight season. After opening with six wins _ two more than its total in 2008 _ Atlanta was in first place before closing with six losses in their last seven games.

“We just didn’t play that well at the end of the year,” Dream coach and general manager Marynell Meadors said. “We had injuries to key players, and with an 11-player roster, that can really throw chemistry off. … I’m proud of our team for getting to the playoffs, and whether we limped in or knocked the doors down, we’re there.”

The West’s other series features the defending champion Mercury (15-19) taking on third-place San Antonio (14-20) on Thursday night. Phoenix, which acquired Candice Dupree from Chicago in the three-team deal that sent Pondexter to New York, struggled for consistency and finished with eight fewer wins than a year ago. The Mercury lost six of their last seven but still managed to finish second in the West.

The Silver Stars lost five of seven before winning their last two games to beat out Minnesota for one of the West’s last two playoff spots. San Antonio then edged Los Angeles for the No. 3 seed with a victory against the Mercury on the last day.

“I think we can compete with anybody,” the Silver Stars’ Becky Hammon said. “We’re glad that we did what we needed to do to get into the playoffs. The playoffs are a whole new season, nothing in the past matters. The only thing that matters is Thursday.”

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AP Sports Writer Tim Booth in Seattle contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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