SEATTLE – Averaging 28 points per game in the playoffs, Atlanta Dream second-year forward Angel McCoughtry has the numbers worthy of playing in the WNBA finals spotlight.
Although Seattle Storm veteran Sue Bird (11.8) doesn't come close to McCoughtry's stats, she has already has played — and won — in the WNBA finals.
Now, Bird figures that title-series experience in 2004 — and her six years in the league since then — could come in handy when the teams tip off in the this year's finals Sunday in Seattle.
"You can say that it might not mean anything. But trust me," Bird said. "Having experience in this league, knowing what it takes to win, how to play hopefully at our best throughout the entire season, how to peak at the right time — all of those things, you learn over the course of your career.
"I definitely feel more mature (than in 2004), especially in my ability to lead and things like that."
The second game of the best-of-five series is Tuesday in Seattle before it shifts to Atlanta for Game 3 on Thursday.
Bird and Australian superstar Lauren Jackson, who averaged 20.5 points and 8.3 rebounds during the regular season and was named the league's MVP for the third time, led Seattle to a 28-6 record. That tied the league mark for most regular-season victories, and the Storm set a record by going 17-0 at home.
Then, with five straight first-round playoff exits hanging over them since the title run, the Storm swept Los Angeles and defending champion Phoenix in the first two rounds.
Bird and Jackson are the only two holdovers from Seattle's 2004 championship team, though Jackson wasn't especially interested in comparing then with now.
"Honestly, I can't remember. We're a completely different team, different experiences, things like that," she said.
Bird, on the other hand, had no problem recalling her feelings heading into that best-of-three series with Connecticut, which went the distance.
"In a way, I was wide-eyed, kind of soaking it all in," Bird said. "Now, it's definitely more businesslike, more focused, more knowing what to expect."
McCoughtry is trying to avoid those wide-eyed emotions. Certainly, she was the picture of calm and cool effectiveness as the Dream swept past top-seeded Washington in the Eastern semifinals, then eliminated New York in the conference finals. McCoughtry led the clincher against the Liberty last Tuesday when she scored a WNBA playoff-record 42 points.
"I got so many comments on Facebook and Twitter saying, 'Oh, congratulations, you scored. 42.' Please - that's nothing," said McCoughtry, who experienced some championship-style atmosphere when she led Louisville into the 2009 NCAA title game. "Tell me congratulations after we win. Don't try to pump my head up. Let me focus on this."
In their own way, two of the WNBA's best team stories in 2010 are the last two in title contention.
The Storm got out quickly and kept going. From June 18 through July 30, Seattle won 13 straight, pushing its record to 22-2 and effectively wrapping up the West.
Atlanta, just two years removed from its 4-30 record as an expansion team in 2008, got off to a 6-0 start. The Dream were the league's last unbeaten team when they came to Seattle on June 1 and lost 90-72.
Seattle swept the season series with an 80-70 win in Atlanta on Aug. 10. But neither side is putting much stock in either of those games.
"I thought any of those teams in the Eastern Conference could have won the playoffs," said Seattle's Brian Agler, the league's Coach of the Year. "Atlanta, not having home-court advantage, was impressive with how they got through there."
Dream coach and general manager Marynell Meadors knows what her team is up against with Seattle, even with her successful switch to a more defensive-minded starting lineup that puts guard Coco Miller and guard-forward Armintie Price on the floor at the outset and brings regular-season starters Erika De Souza and Shalee Lehning off the bench.
"It's not only one challenge with Seattle, it's several," Meadors said. "There are three of them (Jackson, Bird and Swin Cash) who are very tough, and they have a very good supporting cast. They play well together, they've been together for a long, long time, and they've been in situations probably more than our team has."