The Indiana Fever got off to a dominant start and were all but assured of getting in the playoffs long ago.
After stumbling down the stretch, the Eastern Conference champions know they need to regain their intensity when they open the postseason against fourth-place Washington on Thursday night.
"It is quite difficult when you know you are in and you can relax a little bit," veteran guard Tully Bevilaqua said. "Now that we are coming into the playoffs, it is going to be a totally different mentality. ... We know that if we don't bring our 'A' game, then we might be exiting early and that is certainly not on the plan."
Despite losing seven of their last 10 games, the Fever (22-12) still set a franchise record for victories with All-Stars Katie Douglas and Tamika Catchings leading the way. Indiana also got strong contributions from rookie Briann January and veterans Tammy Sutton-Brown and Ebony Hoffman.
Catchings, who had 99 steals to finish one short of the WNBA record, isn't concerned by the team's finish.
"It is a change of mentality," she said, "but I think the last 10 games we really tried to focus into changing into a playoff mentality and even though we have not won all of them, I think going in we are going to have to use the positive things that came out of it. Our bench played more minutes and getting them accustomed to playing, hopefully they will be ready for us."
The Phoenix Mercury (23-11) won the West with the league's best record and open as the conference favorite to reach the WNBA finals as they seek their second title in three years. However, don't count out Lisa Leslie and the surging Los Angeles Sparks.
For the second straight year, Los Angeles opened the season as the overwhelming favorites to win the championship, especially after bolstering the backcourt and adding veteran forward Tina Thompson.
The Sparks (18-16) struggled in the early going while playing without Candace Parker, who missed the first nine games after giving birth to her daughter, and Leslie for 10 games due to an injury in her final season. But since Leslie returned on Aug. 4, the Sparks have looked like the championship contenders they were expected to be, winning 10 of 13 to close the season.
"I think we're coming together a little bit more, hopefully at the right time and we can pull it together," said Leslie, who is headed for retirement. "I think our chances are as good as anyone else's. It'll be 0-0 and we're definitely going to have to fight hard."
Los Angeles finished third in the West and will host second-place Seattle (20-14) in their series opener Wednesday night. The Sparks won the teams' first-round matchup in three games a year ago, and they split their four regular-season meetings this year.
The Storm had three All-Stars this season in Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird and Swin Cash, but could be vulnerable without Jackson, who hasn't played since Aug. 27 due to a stress fracture in her back and could miss this series. Sue Bird missed the last three games due to a sore neck, but the Storm had already secured the No. 2 seed.
The Mercury's high-octane offense was again led by Diana Taurasi, who won her second straight scoring title, and Cappie Pondexter, who finished third. DeWanna Bonner had a sensational rookie season and Penny Taylor _ a key cog in Phoenix's title run two years ago _ returned for the final 14 games after missing last season.
The Mercury visit San Antonio (15-19) for the opener of their first-round series on Thursday. The Silver Stars, led by career-best scoring seasons from their star duo of Becky Hammon and Sylvia Young, were inconsistent this year after reaching the WNBA finals last season.
"They're a veteran team ... the Western champs last year," Mercury coach Corey Gaines said. "You've got to go through them and take it away to get to the championship."
The teams split four regular-season matchups, with the home squad winning each time.
"It's one of the teams that has probably given us the most trouble in the regular season," Taurasi said. "In the games we did well, we obviously rebounded well and did a good job on their key players, which isn't easy."
The Mystics (16-18) return to the playoffs after a two-year absence in their first season under general manager Angela Taylor and coach Julie Plank. The additions of Lindsey Harding, Chasity Melvin and Matee Ajavon bolstered an offense led by All-Star guard Alana Beard.
Beard missed four of the last six games due to an ankle injury, but is expected to be back for the playoffs. Even with Beard, the Mystics could struggle to score against a Fever team that set a WNBA record with 373 steals and gave up the third-fewest points in the league.
"They're an excellent defensive team, they force a lot of turnovers," Plank said. "Tamika Catchings is a great player, one of the best in the league, and they have a great inside-outside game."
The other East series that opens Wednesday features the defending champion Detroit Shock (18-16) against the second-year Atlanta Dream (18-16), who earned the conference's No. 2 seed a year after setting the league record with 30 losses.
Atlanta, which won three of four from the Shock this year, was helped by a roster overhaul that included the return of seven-time All-Star Chamique Holdsclaw from a nearly two-year retirement and the addition of No. 1 overall draft pick Angel McCoughtry. However, Holdsclaw had arthroscopic knee surgery on Aug. 27 and her status for the postseason is uncertain.
Detroit, led by the veteran tandem of Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith, won nine of its last 11 to reach the playoffs for the seventh straight year. The Shock recovered from a bad start that included the resignation of coach Bill Laimbeer three games into the season. The final push came while Smith missed the last seven games due to lower back pain, and her status for this series is also uncertain.