A year ago, the Minnesota Lynx opened the WNBA playoffs in an unfamiliar position after setting the franchise record for wins and making the team's first postseason appearance since 2004. The experience of winning the title has the defending champions in a much different mindset this time.
Minnesota (27-7) again finished with the league's best record, matching last season's win total, and enters the playoffs as the favorite to become the first team to win consecutive championships in 10 years.
"Last year was a lot of teaching about the playoffs and what to expect," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. "This year is different. They know exactly what to expect. They know exactly what I want from them, where their focus is to be."
With just two newcomers, Minnesota's chemistry was evident all summer as it opened the season with 10 wins, and then followed the only losing streak - a three-game skid in the first week of July - by winning 11 straight. The Lynx did set one franchise record this year, going 16-1 at home - which could come in handy since Minnesota is assured of having home-court advantage every round.
However, just because the Lynx won last year and had another big season, star forward Seimone Augustus insists their approach is still the same. They aren't taking anything for granted, nor will they look beyond their first-round series against Seattle, which opens Friday.
"You don't want to look too far ahead as far as defending a title," Augustus said. "We got to get past the first round, second round to get back to the Finals. So just being focused in on what we need to do against Seattle is the most important thing right now."
The postseason begins Thursday with New York (15-19) visiting Connecticut (25-9) in the Eastern Conference and Los Angeles (24-10) hosting San Antonio (21-13) in a West series. Indiana (22-12) hosts Atlanta (19-15) in the opener of the other East series on Friday.
The Sun were the dominant team in the East, winning their first conference title since 2006 - the second of two straight years they accomplished the feat. Connecticut finished one win shy of the franchise record, did not lose consecutive games at any point and lost two out of three just twice. The Sun were also the league's best road team at 13-4.
"We've taken care of all the particulars we can take care of," Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said. "Now we just go play one game at a time."
The Sun open against a Liberty team they beat four out of five times this season, with the last meeting coming more than a month ago. However, New York has been playing with a playoff mentality the second half of the season as they went to the nearly the last day of the season before edging Chicago for the final postseason spot.
"They're playing as a team better since we've last seen them," the Sun's Kara Lawson said. "They have a lot of experience on that team. So we have to play the way we played all season long, and utilize the strengths we have against them."
Minnesota's biggest challenge in the West figures to come from the Sparks, who had their best season in six years and boast a starting lineup with five double-figure scorers that account for more than 80 percent of the team's points. They were also a dominant team at home, losing just once - like the Lynx.
Los Angeles is led by Candace Parker, who played a full season for the first time since she was a rookie in 2008, and Kristi Toliver, who is a strong candidate for the league's Most Improved Player award. Nneka Ogwumike, this year's No. 1 overall pick draft, also provides a strong defensive presence to complement Parker.
The Silver Stars won three of four against the Sparks this season, though their victories all came in a two-week stretch in June. Los Angeles had a 20-point win at home in late August and closed the season with five wins in its last six games.
"The last few weeks they've been peaking at the right time," San Antonio veteran guard Becky Hammon said. "We just want to come in, focused and be who we are. Defensively we've got to be on our toes with them. They have so many great 1-on-1 players, so it's going to take a team effort for us."
San Antonio's season was highlighted by a 15-2 stretch midway that included a 12-game winning streak. The Silver Stars were inconsistent before and after that run, losing seven of their last 11. Now, they'll have to turn things around if they want to get past Los Angeles and advance in the postseason for the first time since reaching the Finals in 2008.
The other East series is a rematch of last year's conference finals, which Atlanta won in three games to advance to the title round for the second straight year - where the Dream were swept again by a dominant team.
Atlanta endured some turmoil last month, including a coaching change and the suspension of star forward Angel McCoughtry - the league's top scorer. The Dream got past that and finished strong, winning seven of their last nine - including a loss in two overtimes at Minnesota.
"We just need to make sure that we continue to play together, play extremely hard," Atlanta's Lindsey Harding said. "From this point on every possession matters. It is going to be a close game all the way through, so that is definitely our focus."
The Fever, led by Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas, had at least 21 wins for the seventh time in eight seasons, but their depth could be tested in the opening round. Starters Briann January and Shavonte Zellous missed the last three games due to concussion-like symptoms and coach Lin Dunn hoped to get the two cleared to practice by Thursday.