At the end of what she called “One of the craziest weeks of my life,” Lindsay Whalen returned to the Target Center cauldron, revisited her favorite portions of the paint, paid homage to her legacy and provided a reminder that it is customary to spell “grit” with a T.
In one of the sloppiest performances by the Lynx since the team began playing for titles in 2011, Coach Whalen offered the most efficient and combative performance for the returning champions, providing more points (17), assists (nine) and in-your-face shoves (one) than anyone else on the roster.
Whalen committed only two of the 24 turnovers that ruined the Lynx’s opener, a 77-76 last-second loss to Los Angeles. In an uncharacteristically ugly team effort, Whalen provided reassurance that at the age of 36 and in the midst of establishing her program at the University of Minnesota, she looks neither distracted nor weary.
Even though she must be.
“Seriously, it was one of the craziest weeks of my life,” Whalen said. “But it was fun!”
She woke at 7 a.m. each morning and found herself, for the first time in her basketball life, constantly checking her phone at night for possible developments and responsibilities. Playing for the Lynx has become the simplest part of her life.
“Now,” she said, “I’m always on.”
Whalen calls her mother when she needs to decompress, and received more familial help when her sister visited on Friday from Phoenix. They sat on the deck, ate Black Sheep pizza and “solved all of the world’s problems.”
Except for one: How to dance through an epic pregame celebration, receive your brick-sized rings from your latest championship, face a dread rival missing its best player (Candace Parker was out because of a back injury), and play with the crispness that has defined this four-titles-in-seven-years run.
Los Angeles, forced to play a small lineup, blitzed the Lynx’s ballhandlers and sent waves of players at Lynx post Sylvia Fowles. Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, typically blunt, said she didn’t know what star Maya Moore (four turnovers) or Fowles (six turnovers) were doing.
The Lynx played the “Rocky” theme late in the game, and it was apropos for the wrong reason.
Despite facing intense defense from Sparks guard Odyssey Sims — which led to Whalen and Sims shoving each other in front of the Los Angeles bench and receiving technical fouls — Whalen committed just two turnovers in 28 minutes, and led a comeback that would have felt fitting if not for the Sparks’ last-second layup.
Whalen hit a three-pointer at the end of the first half, then leveled a malevolent gaze at Sims. After Los Angeles went on a 14-0 run — the Lynx paid homage to the Timberwolves giving up 50 points in the last third quarter played at Target Center by scoring just 11 in this third quarter — Whalen helped start a comeback.
She hit two free throws at the end of the third. Early in the fourth, she found Fowles for a layup, shoved Gray, hit Fowles for a fast-break layup, spun in a patented, improbable, reverse layup, and scored on a lead-with-the-shoulder drive.
With 1:52 remaining she scored to make it 73-70 Los Angeles. With 33.5 left, she drew another foul and hit two free throws, to make it 75-74 L.A.
With 5.8 remaining, Whalen drove into a pack and was rewarded with a foul call that may have been more the result of respect than merit. She made both free throws, and the Lynx led 76-75.
Chelsea Gray’s winner ruined a wonderful story line — Gophers coach wins Lynx game — but the dramatic afternoon provided the latest reminder that Whalen is not just the most accomplished basketball player in Minnesota history — she can be a trash-talking competitor who may scorch a few Big Ten referees.
“Vintage Lindsay,” Reeve said. “Just trying to put us in a position to win.”
That’s what coaches are supposed to do.