MINNEAPOLIS - The Minnesota Lynx looked every bit the favorite to win the WNBA title in their commanding victory over the Atlanta Dream in the opener.
They have home-court advantage in the championship round for a third straight year, a proud, confident and determined bunch pursuing their second title in that span. The Lynx used balance, depth and strength at both ends of the floor to overwhelm the Dream 84-59 in Game 1 on Sunday night, the second-largest margin in WNBA finals history.
That doesn't mean this best-of-five series is sewn up, though.
Though lopsided scores like this can serve as evidence of a clear gap between two teams, sometimes a blowout makes it easier for the loser to regroup and respond with a far better performance.
"We're seasoned. We have faced adversity, so we know how to handle things. We know that these 40 minutes that we played have no bearing on Game 2," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. "It will be amazing how different Game 2 is versus Game 1."
Dream standout Angel McCoughtry was defiant, too, that her team will bounce back in Game 2 on Tuesday night.
"We're not going to be down. What's the point? It's over. We're movin' on," the WNBA's leading scorer this season said after shooting 6-for-24 and finishing with five turnovers and 17 points. "We're going to keep our heads up, and we're going to continue to believe. We have confidence in ourselves. We believe we can win a series."
They have to start smaller than that, with one game.
This is the Dream's third appearance in the finals in four years, but they're 0-7 so far. They started the season 10-1 but struggled through injuries all summer, and forward Sancho Lyttle is still out with a broken left foot. At 17-17, they brought the worst winning percentage in league history to the championship round. They found a rhythm at just the right time, following up a playoff-opening loss to Washington by winning four games in a row to get here.
With Erika DeSouza (10 points, seven rebounds, one block) and Aneika Henry (14 points, 14 rebounds, two blocks) using their superior height to their advantage around the basket, the Dream proved they can play in the post with the Lynx's Janel McCarville, Rebekkah Brunson and Devereaux Peters. Atlanta had a 44-35 edge in paint points.
The problem was they didn't try to send the ball in there enough. Guard Jasmine Thomas shot even worse than McCoughtry, going 3 for 15 for nine points. The Dream went 0 for 15 from 3-point range.
"I noted it in the locker room right away: That's got to cut in half," coach Fred Williams said, urging his team to be unafraid to take hard dribbles in for long 2-point jumpers.
Williams added: "They enticed us to get out there. Some of those were when they were up on us, and trying to get 3-pointers outside by McCoughtry and a couple of other players. But that is definitely going to cut in half next time we play."
Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus gave the Lynx their usual stellar play, and Lindsay Whalen was the calm, steadying point guard they need her to be with six rebounds and five assists in 24 minutes despite only three points. But the Lynx built up their lead with a playoff-career-best 20 points, plus tight defense on McCoughtry, from Monica Wright off the bench. She went 9 for 14 from the field and also had five rebounds and three steals.
"She is vital to us, and we need that from her. And whenever she can play like that, it gives everybody else life," an admiring Moore said as she sat next to Wright at the interview podium after the game.
Then there was McCarville, the only starter who wasn't around the last two times the Lynx played in the finals. She fought through a bad back to score seven points with five rebounds and four assists.
"She had a couple of tough physical days, and she put it all aside for us," Reeve said. "Knowing how important Game 1 is in a series, she was hurting and she was able to focus through that. So I was impressed at the warrior nature of what she did."