Let's start with a loss.

Odd, maybe, when you're talking about the Lynx, who are still vying for a top-four finish and the bye in the WNBA playoffs. The Lynx are 13-6 with three games left in the regular season.

But, a loss.

It was Aug. 30, and the Lynx had just lost to Phoenix. A horrendous start had the Lynx down 22 in the second quarter. A feverish finish had pulled the Lynx as close as two when point guard Crystal Dangerfield — who scored 15 of her 20 points in the fourth quarter — drove for a score with 5.9 seconds left in the game.

After it ended, Dangerfield — the youngest player in Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve's starting lineup — said this:

Sorry. Twice.

To her coaches, to her teammates. The slow start and, ultimately, the loss was her fault.

"I'm on the point of everything," Dangerfield said, recalling that night. "I'm the one bringing the ball up. I'm the one stopping the ball at the top on the other end. I had to put it out there. Apologize."

Whether it was really her fault isn't the point. What's important is Dangerfield, pushing to become the first player not drafted in the first round to be named WNBA rookie of the year, was taking the blame. That's what leaders do.

Reeve is loath to compare players. But here's one: When Dangerfield took the loss on her shoulders — which are surprisingly strong given her 5-5 frame — it evoked memories of another point guard.

"Reminds me of Lindsay Whalen," Reeve said. "The good ones take responsibility for their team."

Setting the tone

“The only reason this is a big surprise is because she was drafted in the second round. Everyone is making such a big deal. Wow. Wow. Well, the kid should have gone top 10. There were lots of kids taken ahead of her who can't play. ... Here's the real story: How did so many dummies not get her?”
Geno Auriemma, UConn coach

OK, OK. We're not trying to put one ferocious rookie in the class with the winningest player in the league's history. But it should be noted that Whalen, once the Lynx's star point guard, now the coach at the University of Minnesota, has been watching Dangerfield with growing appreciation. When she was told the story of the Phoenix game?

"It's good," Whalen said. "That is our job. To get the team going, to get everybody going, to make everyone on the court better."

Dangerfield has led the Lynx almost from the beginning with her wicked hesitation move, her pretty teardrop shot, her blazing speed — "You can't stay in front of Crystal," Reeve said — and the toughness that has come to define the team's personality.

Count Whalen as a fan. She loves Dangerfield's shot. Her midrange touch, her ability to hit the deep, deep three.

"Every time she gets ready to shoot, I think it's going to go in," she said.

Even though Dangerfield was the only true point guard on the Lynx roster after being drafted 16th overall out of Connecticut, she wasn't expected to play a lot. Things change quickly in the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Fla.

It was opening night against Connecticut. With the Lynx down six in the fourth, Dangerfield stole an inbounds pass and scored, then drove the lane left and scored again. Moments later it was her three-pointer that put the Lynx ahead for good.

In a 10-point victory over the Mercury in the first game between the teams, Dangerfield scored seven of her 19 points in the fourth in a 10-point win. Against Chicago last week Damiris Dantas was the star, but it was Dangerfield's three-point play with 3:56 left and basket at 1:09 that kept the Lynx ahead late.

WNBA Rookie of the Year candidates

Dangerfield is second in the league in fourth-quarter scoring, with 119 points. Dallas' Arike Ogunbowale is first with 120. She is averaging 15.6 points per game — second to Atlanta's Chennedy Carter among rookies — and is shooting 46.3% overall, 35.1% on three-pointers. But in the fourth? Her shooting goes up to 61.4% and 40.9% on threes.

Along the way she has set the tone for her team.

"She is so even-keeled, like with Phee," Reeve said, comparing Dangerfield to her old college teammate Napheesa Collier. "But Crystal has more of an edge to her. We laugh about Phee. That she doesn't have that trash-talking gene. She's sweet. But Crystal? Rookie of not, she won't take [anything] from people in games."

There was a game early this season. A win, but tight, and Reeve remembers Dangerfield reacting rather strongly to some trash talk; in the bubble, you can hear almost everything.

Said Reeve: "She was angry. That's when we learned who Crystal is. We had wondered where we'd get our personality from. Well, she gives us a lot of our personality."

Playing with an edge

So where does that toughness come from? Is it a cliché to suggest that it comes from having to prove wrong people who, for years, suggested she was too small? Or from sitting and waiting to hear her name on draft night?

Maybe not.

Don't get her wrong. Dangerfield is thrilled where she landed. But 16?

"As I was dropping lower, it was surprise and disappointment," she said. "And then it went from disappointment to anger."

As for her size: "There are a lot of people who have counted me out because of it," she said. "This is not new to me. But I can play. I'm smart. I have physical gifts. Playing with a chip on my shoulder isn't entirely because of that, but it's definitely in there."

Toughness has been there from the start. She played through pain and two hip surgeries in college. And the preparation. Dangerfield is a legendary film-watcher. Hours of it, a habit she brought with her from Connecticut. On draft night, via Zoom, Reeve recalls Dangerfield asking for information. What workouts did the team want her to do? What about the offensive scheme? Defense?

"She just wanted more, more, more," Reeve said.

Reeve — who coached with UConn coach Geno Auriemma with USA Basketball — watched Dangerfield a lot, and she doesn't recall seeing her finish at the rim in college the way she has with the Lynx.

It's all about what's needed. Dangerfield worked on her hesitation move — one teammate Odyssey Sims can't stop praising — and that floater when the WNBA was on hold because of the coronavirus. Already Reeve has near total confidence in her.

"I can count on her," Reeve said. "On her toughness, her ability to get us where we need to be. We put the ball in her hands to make a play."

That said, a point guard needs more than toughness. And Reeve can remember at the start, when Dangerfield really started getting the big minutes, she really didn't know what was going on. But what Reeve hasn't had to help Dangerfield is with things such as angles, on both offense and defense. When to ball-fake, when to pass, when to get to the rim. She already has all of that.

"So she's really just a special player," Reeve said.

Trying to make history

Auriemma is growing tired of the current narrative. About how Dangerfield is such a big surprise.

After winning two state titles playing high school basketball in Tennessee, Dangerfield led the Huskies to multiple Final Fours. And, well, she withstood Auriemma for four years.

"You think about the injuries she had, what she fought through and played with," Auriemma said. "She had to be tough. Listen. The only reason this is a big surprise is because she was drafted in the second round. Everyone is making such a big deal. Wow. Wow. Well, the kid should have gone top 10. There were lots of kids taken ahead of her who can't play. ... Here's the real story: How did so many dummies not get her?"

Now Dangerfield is going down the home stretch of her Rookie of the Year campaign. An injury to top draft pick Sabrina Ionescu changed that race, as did an injury to Carter that kept her out of a few games. Being the starting point guard on a playoff team doesn't hurt either.

Washington coach and GM Mike Thibault was ready to take Dangerfield at No. 12 before a draft-day deal that brought Tina Charles to the team. To him, the argument is unnecessary.

"Her quickness, toughness and three-point shot is there," he said. "She is the rookie of the year."

ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, a former UConn Husky as well, said the intense way Auriemma works his players prepares them for the WNBA; Collier, the 2019 Rookie of the Year, is the latest example.

"It's always fun to watch the undersized player," she said. "You look at them and think, nothing special. She's 5-5. And then for her to do the super human things she's done on the floor? You have to root for her. She's getting everything out of everything she has."

Dangerfield is all about winning. But she did admit, she has given some thought to the ROY.

"Going into the season it wasn't high on my radar," she said. "I just wanted to come in and produce, have my coaches and teammates trust me. But now we're here. Now it's a point where it's, 'Why not?' Crazy things have happened in 2020. Why not this?"