From the start, they’ve had to do it all: Play more, score more, lead more.
What else could Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen do? The Lynx started the 2014 WNBA season with championship expectations and a beat-up roster. Three of the team’s top seven players, coming off knee surgery, were out when the season began; Rebekkah Brunson won’t be back until next week. And All-Star Seimone Augustus, who wasn’t one of those three, has missed nearly a quarter of her team’s games because of knee bursitis.
So what did that mean?
Big minutes and big responsibilities for the two captains healthy enough to play every game from the beginning through Wednesday’s victory over Tulsa, which sent the Lynx into the All-Star Game break 17-6, the same record after 23 games as last year.
Moore and Whalen had to fill the void.
“More so than any other year,” Whalen said.
And, so far, they have. Both are scoring more than ever. Both are playing big minutes, expanding their game. And that’s why, despite the injuries and a brutal early-season schedule, the Lynx are knee-deep in the Western Conference playoff race.
And it’s why Moore and Whalen will be in Phoenix on Saturday for the All-Star Game.
The Lynx are still behind red-hot Phoenix in the battle for home court advantage in the conference playoffs. And while this season hasn’t seemed as easy as some previous ones — the Lynx spent basically three years in first place before ceding that position to Phoenix earlier this year — the team is poised, once healthy, to make another post-break run.
Moore is leading the league in scoring and has scored 30 or more points nine times, just one short of Diana Taurasi’s league-record. Moore has added even more to her arsenal, evolving from a catch-and-shoot specialist to a player who can play one-on-one, pick-and-roll and find ways to score even when an opponent is determined not to let her. She is eighth in the league in rebounding, fifth in steals.
Whalen? Ninth in the league in scoring, third in assists. Adept at knowing just what the Lynx need on any particular night. As coach Cheryl Reeve said, “Whalen wills her teams to wins.’
If Whalen is the team’s heart, Moore is the team’s go-to player.
Whatever means necessary
This is one of Reeve’s favorite sayings, and Whalen has adopted it as her personal credo. But what does it mean? Depends on the night. Or the situation.
“Every game we go into she knows she wants to set the tone, but it varies by game what exactly that means,” Reeve said.
Maybe it’s ball pressure to help the defense. Maybe it’s penetrating and kicking the ball out to her teammates. Maybe it’s going at the basket, hard, when the teams needs points.
“She is in tune to her team,” Moore said of Whalen. “And she has an innate sense of energy, momentum, runs, the feel of the game. She will pick it up with her energy when we’re down. If things are too rattled, she will calm it down. She knows.”
Recent examples: In a recent game with Los Angeles, the Lynx were struggling on the boards and trailed by three entering the fourth quarter. Whalen went out and led the team with four fourth-quarter rebounds, made both of her shots and had two assists as the Lynx won going away.
Two nights later in Tulsa, Whalen came one rebound shy of the fifth triple-double in WNBA history. But it was a play in the third quarter that Reeve recalls. The game was tight and Shock center Courtney Paris had three fouls, and Whalen decided to draw the fourth. So she drove the lane and had her shot blocked by Paris.
“But she got the ball back and goes right back up [Paris’] nose,” Reeve said. “Fourth foul. Three-point play. She willed it to happen.”
More than ever, in time outs, it is Whalen’s voice that is heard.
“The biggest thing is just moving the ball, getting everybody involved early,” Whalen said. “And then reading when it’s time for me to be aggressive. “
Here’s what has impressed Whalen about Moore the most this season. And it isn’t, by the way, that Moore started the season with four consecutive 30-point games.
It’s what Moore does when the three-pointer stops falling and opponents adjust — she finds other ways to score.
Like when Moore abandoned the three-pointer and started going inside, finishing with 30 points against Los Angeles last week. Or the way she shook off a slow start to score 26 against Seattle on Sunday.
“She knows we need her to score,” Whalen said. “She understands that, and she’s pretty much done everything.”
Seattle coach Brian Agler noted after Sunday’s game how much more often the Lynx are having Moore handle the ball and score off the dribble after pick and rolls.
“She used to be just a catch-and-shoot player,” Agler said. “Hit you in transition, move without the ball, back-cutting. Now, more and more, they’re putting her in pick and rolls. Her game is expanding.”
Said Moore: “I’m getting older and more experienced.” “There are more one-on-one situations. My role this year requires me to handle the ball more.”
Reeve has said how much more athletic Moore looks.
“She’s not lunging, she’s more calculated, more in control,” Reeve said. “She has matured athletically.”
Together, Moore and Whalen have held the fort while the team gets healthy. Devereaux Peters and Monica Wright have come back from knee surgery and have hit their stride. The Lynx expect Brunson and Augustus back after the break, with a fully healthy roster perhaps available next Tuesday against Atlanta.
With 11 games left, there is time to reel in Phoenix and make a run for a third title in four years. And all of that, in large part, because of Moore and Whalen. But then, what else could they do?
“We are the captains on the floor,” Whalen said. “We have each other’s back.”