Maya Moore shrugged off the question as if to say, so what’s new? Since high school she has worn a target on her back, drawing defenders like a magnet.
But pressed, Moore relented. Yes, she said, it’s been more physical this year. Yes, there have been more elbows, and more clutching, grabbing and pushing.
“I have numerous scars and scratches,” she said, raising her arms and looking at them. “More than ever, this year. It’s pretty gross.”
She has played through stitches, through a blow that resulted in her playing on national TV with a black eye. Every opponent went into a game against the Lynx knowing the first job was to slow Moore down.
Nobody did. And that’s why Moore on Wednesday was named the 2014 WNBA MVP. Her trophy will be presented to her by league president Laurel Richie before Thursday’s playoff opener at Target Center.
The Lynx, the first team in WNBA history to win 25 or more games in four consecutive seasons, will open defense of their WNBA title against San Antonio. They are here despite injuries that sidelined top backups Devereaux Peters and Monica Wright at the start of the season, kept Rebekkah Brunson out of the lineup for the first 23 games and kept Seimone Augustus out for 10.
They are here because, in large part, Moore willed them here.
A star from the minute she stepped into the league in 2011, Moore took it to another level this season. She led the league in scoring (23.9 points per game, the third-highest average in league history) and player efficiency. She was second in minutes played (34.8) and was second among forwards in assists (3.4). She was fifth in the league in steals, eighth in rebounds.
She was the only player in the league to score in double figures every game, including a league-record 12 games with 30 or more points.
In short, an overwhelming MVP résumé.
“This comes at an awkward time for me,” said Moore, now frowning. “It still being in-season, and not obtaining the ultimate goal of a championship. It’s hard to let myself go there.”
But again, pressed, she said: “It’s definitely awesome. Every game I played in is where I’ve expressed that joy. Every game I enjoyed with my teammates, able to play well and help us win.”
Expanding her game
Ask Moore about her 2014 season and she’ll talk about how great it was to come to a great team in 2011 that allowed her to grow into the player she is today. Mention all of her points and she’ll talk about playing better defense.
Talk about all the glitzy, gaudy numbers, and she talks team.
Out of necessity, Moore scored more. Nearly 30 percent more than last year. But she also played better defense, set career highs in both rebounds and steals and had more assists than a year ago.
“That’s been the beauty of this year,” she said. “I’ve scored more, yeah. But it’s been within the context of what we’re trying to do. I don’t feel like I forced it.”
To Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, the biggest thing is the expansion of her game. Reeve likes to joke about how much Moore loves the three-pointer, and how she’d be happy scoring all of her points from out there. And that’s the way things started this year, when she hit just about every shot she took while opening the season with four consecutive 30-point games.
But then defenses changed, and some of those three-pointers stopped falling. Moore adjusted. She posted up against smaller defenders, continued to move without the ball as well as anyone in the game. Perhaps most important, she improved her ball-handling ability, which allowed her to deal with in-your-face perimeter defense by dribbling to a mid-range shot.
“In our game, the mid-range shot is so valuable,” Reeve said. “It’s not as much fun. You’re going to get beat up. It’s hard work. But it’s what the team needed. She takes the game as it comes. That’s maturity. … But then, she’s used to having the target on her back. She’s been Maya Moore a long time.”
Said Moore: “I can play to my potential and not be all about me. I can do everything that God built me to do, here, within the flow of our offense.”
A tougher player, too
Reeve remembers talking to University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma when Moore was about to enter the WNBA. Auriemma said Moore, as a UConn senior, was like a shark, “ ‘that if you punched her in the face, she goes away,’ ” Reeve said. “I’m proud to say you can’t punch Maya in the face any more. She’ll make you pay.”
The rest of the league knows this. Los Angeles coach Penny Toler has called Moore a “monster.” Atlanta coach Fred Williams called her the Michael Jordan of the WNBA. Her teammates just call her essential.
“She kept her composure,” Augustus said. “She kept leading this team when other leaders were out. She was the consistent one. She had to score, had to defend the other team’s best player, had to rebound the ball. Everything. And she just buckled down and did it.”
She’ll post up, taking the elbows, to score. She’ll cut to the hoop, take the foul. She will draw defenders and pass to a teammate. Most of all, she wins.
Reeve makes the Jordan comparison reluctantly, eager for the day when a great woman’s player is compared, say, to Moore. But for now, she said, the comparison is apt.
“He had a fire in him to be the best,” Reeve said. “No matter how many rings he had. That’s Maya.’’