The WNBA postseason will have to be good to match the excitement of a regular season in which teams tied or established records for victories and points per game.
Nine teams recorded at least 18 wins, a league record; 12 averaged at least 70 points a game; and Phoenix and Washington each averaged more than 80 points, well past the previous league best of 77.3 by Houston in 2000.
Certainly the playoffs, which begin tonight in Houston and Indiana, figure to be the most wide open the league has had in its 10 years.
Connecticut (26-8) and the Sparks (25-9) finished with the best records in the Eastern and Western Conferences, but neither is considered a lock to reach the championship finals starting Aug. 30.
Coach Bill Laimbeer, whose Detroit team won the WNBA title in 2003, said the league is now "bigger, faster, stronger, smarter," and "coaches across the board are more prepared."
"It's like night and day," he said. "The league has taken two massive jumps. When it started, it was a 30-something league of veteran players. The first major jump was [2002, when] Swin Cash and Sue Bird and the other Connecticut kids came in and really made it an influx of young talent. I think in the last year the new players coming in and the competition for jobs has taken the league to another jump.
"You have seen the scoring go up. I think the 24-second clock had an impact, but I don't think anybody realized the impact it would have scoring-wise and increase the quality of the game."
The Western Conference especially seems up for grabs.
The Sparks, Sacramento, Houston and Seattle each have won at least one title. Sacramento (21-13) is the defending champion. Houston (18-16), which faces Sacramento in the first round, won titles from 1997 to 2000. The Sparks, who face Seattle, won in 2001 and 2002. Seattle (18-16) won in 2004.
"I'm certainly in no way trying to slight any of the teams from the East," Sacramento Coach John Whisenant said. "But all of these teams in here, and Phoenix could probably say they too could be included in that group, could probably win any series from any other team.
"We look at the great talent and it is kind of frightening -- it makes me quite nervous, but I guess that's the enjoyable thing about all of this."
Connecticut is the overall favorite in the East and is expected to easily handle first-round opponent Washington (18-16).
It gets tougher after that. Detroit (23-11) won all three regular-season meetings with Connecticut. Indiana (21-13), which averaged a league-high 10.4 steals and gave up a low of 68.1 points, plays the kind of defense that can frustrate any team.
Also wearing on the Sun: It has been to consecutive league finals and been unable to win. (New York is the only Eastern team to appear in three championship series without winning.)
"I tell my players that the expectations have certainly changed," Connecticut Coach Mike Thibault said. "And it's a good thing; you want to be considered one of the best teams and you should want to have the pressure of trying to win a championship."