Two lousy free throws.
Maya Moore was on the Lynx practice court the other day, shaking her head, frowning.
This, in itself, is news. Watch Moore operate on a basketball court and you get a lesson in stoicism. Whether she’s dropping threes, scoring in bunches or dealing with difficulty, Moore’s mien rarely changes.
But, this day, there’s a frown.
Moore sets goals and is used to reaching them. You don’t become the best player in college basketball, the WNBA’s top draft pick and an Olympic gold medal winner by settling. So, before this season, she and Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve sat down and talked about some individual goals. Moore came up with three: 40, 50, 90.
She wasn’t worried about how many points she scored, but how she scored them — efficiently. She wanted to shoot 40 percent or better from three-point range, 50 percent or better overall, and 90 percent from the free-throw line.
Check, check and …
“Just needed two more,” Moore said, noting that two more made free throws would have done it. “Oh, well.”
She’ll live. Thursday night in Los Angeles, Sparks forward/center Candace Parker won her second MVP award, edging out Moore in the closest voting since 2005.
But the ultimate reward is still out there. Friday night the Lynx (26-8) begin their best-of-three Western Conference semifinals against Seattle (17-17), looking to reach the league finals for the third consecutive season and win their second title.
The Lynx remain a balanced, skilled, veteran bunch. But, more and more, Moore is leading the way. In her third season, Moore has put up career numbers in just about every area. She led the Lynx in scoring (18.5) and steals (1.74) and was second in rebounding and assists. She fills up a stat sheet like she fills up a hoop — efficiently, stoically, surgically.
“I feel more comfortable in my third year,” she said. “I know the rhythm of the season.’’
The efficiency jumps out at you. Moore became the first player in WNBA history to lead the league in three-pointers made (72), and three-point shooting percentage (45.3) in the same season. She shot 50.9 percent overall.
She led the Lynx in scoring 13 times, in rebounding eight times, in assists five times. She scored in double figures in 31 of 34 games, had 16 games with 20 or more points and 30-plus twice.
She was the Western Conference player of the month in August and September, when she averaged 20.6 points over 17 games. Thirteen times this season, Moore scored 10 or more points in a single quarter.
She can stop and pop, or come off a screen. She can start a fast break or end one. She can operate at the top of the key, in the corner, in the post. As a forward, she passes better than most guards, rebounds better than many centers.
Reeve is struck by how Moore’s one-on-one game has flourished. Assistant coach Jim Petersen said Moore is one of the greatest shot-makers he’s ever been around. Assistant Shelley Patterson compares Moore to former WNBA great Sheryl Swoopes in her ability to remain focused on the game, no matter what’s happening.
“It’s maturity,’’ teammate Seimone Augustus said. “I think she’s finally settled in. Before, maybe, she was pressing a little bit, trying to do too much offensively. Now you can see she’s in her groove. She knows when to take the shot, when to make the pass.’’
For Moore, her third season has brought her game to a critical mass. “I’ve found a good rhythm of where I’ll get my shots, the timing of our offense,’’ she said.
And her place in that offense. “She feels really comfortable,” Reeve said. “From year one to year two, you feel more comfortable. But in year three there is a different feeling. We’ve seen her evolve in two areas.”
The first is on defense, where Moore’s on-ball defensive skills have grown to equal her ability to jump passing lanes. The second is Moore’s play on offense in the open court. “And she has a comfort level, not only with her teammates, but with me,” Reeve said.
The next level
The Lynx secured the league’s top playoff seed for the third season in a row with a balanced attack. Point guard Lindsay Whalen, herself an MVP candidate, also had a career year. Moore, Whalen, Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson were all all-stars.
Reeve talked earlier this week about the hunger the team feels after losing to Indiana in last year’s finals. This time around the Lynx have both that hunger and better health.
“This year you can tell we’re more, what’s the word? Mature,” Augustus said. “We’ve been through the ups, which is winning the championship. And the downs, not being able to do it last year. Now we’re ready to go.’’
And Moore is ready to take yet another step.
“She has had such a great run here in a lot of different aspects,” Whalen said. “Understanding the game, how to get easy shots, how to get herself going. It’s just fun to be on her team.”