Watch Lindsay Whalen for a quarter, for a game, for a season, for more than a decade and you think: Tough.
How many times have you seen it? Whalen, with that signature glide move, bounding down the lane, absorbing abuse, scoring? Whalen, ball in her hands, lending calm to a chaotic situation? Whalen, face impassive, running the show for a Lynx team about to play in its third consecutive WNBA championship series?
Whalen always seems to know when to shoot, when to drive, when to pass, how to win.
And it makes you think …
“Intensity,” teammate Seimone Augustus said the other day after practice. Augustus was talking about Whalen’s role on a very, very good team — one filled with great players, Olympians, veterans and leaders.
“I think: Gritty. ‘Wha’ is one of the toughest, grittiest point guards I’ve ever played with. Stone-willed, determined, smart. She knows when to push, when not to push. Just a brilliant player who plays within herself.”
Fans in Minnesota, of course, have known this for more than a decade. Before Whalen was playing for the Lynx, she was in maroon and gold over at Williams Arena. It was Whalen who took a moribund Gophers basketball program by the neck and thrust it into the Final Four.
It is Whalen who will be playing in her fifth WNBA Finals in her 10-year career come Sunday, who had perhaps her best regular season ever, who will be asked to run the show against a very athletic Atlanta team.
So, we’ve seen it.
She has a knack for knowing what her team needs, the ability to deliver it. Augustus, the 2011 WNBA Finals MVP, a two-time Olympic gold medal winner, the best player in franchise history, calls Whalen the heart and soul of this team.
And the most recent example of that came in the Lynx locker room in Atlanta after an 88-75 loss Aug. 20 when Whalen turned to fellow captains Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson and said, “I let you guys down.’’
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This is the part of Whalen the public doesn’t always see. Fans see stoicism; teammates see witticisms, the rituals. Whalen leads the team’s raucous pregame ritual. She is the one who does a little dance step for Brunson after every practice ends, before giving her a hug.
In the Lynx’s series-clinching victory over Phoenix last week, a game the Lynx won despite Whalen’s 1-for-12 shooting performance, she came to the bench during a timeout, looked at coach Cheryl Reeve and noted with humor, “I’d be pretty good if I could make a shot.’’
But just a few weeks ago, Whalen wasn’t joking.
The Lynx had just lost to the Dream in Atlanta in what everyone agrees was the low point of the season. It was the team’s fourth loss in five games.
“It was the valley, if you will,” Reeve said. “There was adversity. We were getting some islands on the floor rather than getting together and getting stronger.’’
Whalen didn’t think she was playing well, and it bothered her. In particular, an overtime loss in Chicago nine days before when, with a foul to give, Whalen failed to foul Courtney Vandersloot in the closing seconds, leading to Elena Delle Donne’s overtime-forcing three-pointer.
Reever remembers telling Whalen to let that game go, knowing she probably wouldn’t.
And then, in Atlanta, after another loss, Reeve and her three captains met. And Whalen talked. It was the most distraught Reeve had ever seen her point guard.
“She was struggling, really struggling,’’ Reeve said, “and she couldn’t let it go. She just kept spiraling downward. This was very personal for her. She opened up and said, ‘I’m sorry. I let you guys down.’ ’’
Now, Whalen wasn’t the only problem. The whole team was struggling. But Whalen is the team’s point guard. It’s her job to know what the team needs. And so what was the impact of a star and leader pointing the finger at herself?
“When you hear that, you look at yourself and wonder, ‘What didn’t I do?’ ” Augustus said. “‘How can I make things better?’ Lindsay apologized. She said, ‘From this point on I’m letting it go. And we are going to push forward.’ ”
Then the Lynx went out and won 12 of their next 13 games.
For Whalen, it was simple: She had to rid herself of some baggage before a trip to the playoffs.
“I needed to talk about the fact I didn’t think I was playing well,” she said. “It’s hard to win when your point guard isn’t playing great. Ask my parents. I’ve always taken things hard, to heart. You put so much into it, you’re on a team, everybody is trying so hard. As a point guard, as a leader, I wasn’t doing enough of my job.’’
The Lynx finished the regular season on an 8-1 run, and they have won four in a row in the playoffs, earning a rematch of the 2011 finals. “So it worked, right?’’ Brunson said.
Everything is back to normal. Which, for Whalen, means the same old familiar routines. Her plan was to eat dinner at Olive Garden on Saturday night, taking home a couple of breadsticks. For brunch Sunday she will have egg whites, turkey bacon and a warmed-up breadstick.
Before the game, a precise timeline has her leave the locker room at the same time, stretch on the same place on the court. Then she will get up, walk to center court, confer with Reeve, then warm up. Come game time she’ll be ready to do whatever it takes.
“When Whalen is on the floor,” Augustus said, “you just know things are going to be all right.’’