SEATTLE — By virtue of the team’s No.1 playoff seed, the road to the WNBA Finals must wind through Seattle, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Storm is the favorite to win its third league championship.
Not this year, when preseason predictions proved to be pointless.
A crammed regular season produced record-setting performances during a year when the old guard faltered and new title challengers in the Eastern Conference rose in the league standings.
When the postseason begins Tuesday, just try picking a champion from a field where the two most recent champs (Minnesota in 2017 and Los Angeles in 2016) meet in a first-round, loser-out matchup while the top four seeds combined to go 3-6 in the playoffs last year.
The Storm ran away from the competition this summer en route to a 26-8 record — the second-most victories in franchise history — but Seattle is one of a handful of teams that has what it takes to win the title.
“I don’t look at it as respect or disrespect, I look at it as you got to earn your stripes and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Storm guard Sue Bird said. “Some of it is we get caught up on the same old story lines. I do the same thing.
“If the NFL season started today, I’d probably (think New England would win the Super Bowl) just because we’re always talking about the Patriots.
“There’s a tendency to get stuck, that’s one part. The other part is those teams have earned that. Minnesota and L.A. — right now in our league — have earned that.”
Here’s a WNBA primer to help you navigate through the postseason.
The playoffs feature the league’s top eight teams, seeded regardless of conference affiliation. The top two seeds receive a bye to the best-of-five semifinal round and the third and fourth seeds earn the right to host single-elimination quarterfinal games.
Teams are reseeded after each round, ensuring the highest seeds play the lowest seeds. The semifinals and WNBA Finals adhere to a 2-2-1 format.
No. 6 Los Angeles vs. No.?7 Minnesota (7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Staples Center, ESPN2)
These teams battled in the Finals each of the past two seasons and seemed destined to meet for the third straight year in the playoffs. But few expected they would renew their rivalry in a first-round, loser-out matchup.
The Lynx dynasty — four titles in the past seven years — might be nearing its end. Maya Moore captured her second straight WNBA All-Star MVP this year and Sylvia Fowles is a contender for the Defensive Player of the Year award, but 36-year-old point guard Lindsay Whalen is retiring at the end of the season.
No. 5 Phoenix vs. No. 8 Dallas (5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe, Ariz., ESPN2)
The Mercury has won four straight gams and advanced to the postseason for the sixth straight year. Meanwhile, the Wings stumbled into the playoffs after losing 10 of their last 11 games.
Phoenix, which won the regular-season series 2-1, is one of the few teams that can slow down 6-foot-8 center Liz Cambage, the league’s scoring champion. Brittney Griner, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, held Cambage to an average of 13.6 points — 10 below her overall average.
The must-see perimeter matchup features WNBA all-time scoring leader Diana Taurasi of the Mercury against four-time All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith.
No. 4 Connecticut (plays at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Mohegan Sun Arena, ESPN2)
After a 7-1 start, the Sun went 5-11 during a miserable stretch that ended with a 78-65 defeat to the Storm on July 20. But after the loss to Seattle, Connecticut won nine of 10 games to finish the regular season.
Connecticut led the WNBA with an 87.6 scoring average without any player averaging more than 15.
All-star forward Chiney Ogwumike, who missed Sunday’s game, led the Sun with 14.4 points per game followed by Jasmine Thomas (12.9), Courtney Williams (12.6), Jonquel Jones (11.8) and Alyssa Thomas (10.3).
Last year, Connecticut also secured a first-round bye before losing at home to Phoenix in the quarterfinals.
No. 3 Washington (plays at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, ESPN2)
Despite an 88-83 loss at Minnesota in a regular-season finale that had no bearing on their playoff seed, the Mystics are peaking at the right time and head into the playoffs with a full head of steam.
Before its defeat, Washington had won eight straight games, including a 100-77 victory over the visiting Storm. The Mystics finished with a franchise-best 22 regular-season wins and has flown under the radar for most of the season.
Still, Washington is a legitimate title contender that features five-time All-Star Elena Delle Donne, two-time All-Star Kristi Toliver and rookie breakout sensation Ariel Atkins.
Delle Donne is arguably the WNBA’s best player without a title and this is her best chance to date to win a championship.
Delle Donne made a WNBA Finals appearance in 2014 with the Chicago Sky and was swept in three games.
No. 2 Atlanta (plays at noon Sunday, McCamish Pavilion, ESPN2)
A year after missing the playoffs and winning a mere 12 games, the Dream is the top team in the Eastern Conference under first-year coach Nicki Collen. It’s an amazing turnaround for Atlanta, which lost five-time All-Star Angel McCoughtry to a season-ending knee injury two weeks ago.
It was a big blow considering McCoughtry averages 22.8 points during her playoff career and ranks second all time in the league in postseason scoring.
Tiffany Hayes, an All-Star snub who is averaging a career-high 17.2 points, has picked up the slack and led the Dream to a 5-1 record since McCoughtry’s injury.
Atlanta beat Seattle 2-1 in the regular-season series, including wins at home and on the road.
No. 1 Seattle (plays at 2?p.m. Sunday, KeyArena, ESPN2)
After two straight years of flaming out in the first round, the Storm makes its first semifinal appearance since winning its second franchise title in 2010.
Seattle’s lineup includes MVP leading candidate Breanna Stewart; All-Star Jewell Loyd; Natasha Howard, who won a title last year in Minnesota; and Bird, an 11-time All-Star.
The Storm is the only team this season that hasn’t lost consecutive games.