Every now and then, Lindsay Whalen will see a picture from the Gophers' Final Four run in 2004, and she can't help but smile.

"We all look so young," she said.

She's not 21 anymore, but Whalen's role and responsibility on the basketball court remain largely unchanged. She still runs the show, still puts pressure on defenses with her dribble drives, still plays with that bulldog grit.

And she's still trying to lead a local team on a deep postseason run, this time in a Lynx uniform.

"Years like this you feel so fortunate to be on a team like this," she said.

The Lynx were fortunate to have Whalen on their side Friday night in their playoff opener against the San Antonio Silver Stars. Whalen carried the Lynx with her offense early and bailed them out with her defense in the final seconds as they survived a ragged performance for a 66-65 victory at Target Center.

Whalen's deflection on an inbounds pass with 4 seconds remaining led to a game-saving steal by Maya Moore. Whalen timed her jump perfectly and got a hand on Danielle Robinson's pass, preventing a potential game-winning shot.

"On that play, I just wanted to be as disruptive as possible," Whalen said. "Luckily, I got my hand on it."

Whalen had her fingerprints all over Game 1. Her nickname around the team is "Way," and she led the way on a night when her teammates battled nerves and some horrendous shooting.

Whalen pressed the issue on offense. She scored 12 of her team's first 23 points and finished with a game-high 20. She added five rebounds, five assists and three steals. And the defensive play of the game.

"Lindsay has just been important to us all season long, and tonight was no different," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. "She had a great bounce in her step. That's just Lindsay."

At age 29 and in her eighth season, Whalen recognizes the importance of this opportunity. There was a time in her career when postseason success looked like her basketball birthright. She went to the Final Four as a senior in college and played in the WNBA Finals her first two seasons with Connecticut.

"After we lost in the conference finals [in 2006], I'm like, 'We're not going to the finals?'" she said. "I thought it was like guaranteed that we're going to play in the finals. When it doesn't work out like that, as you get older, you realize that it's hard to get there."

She experienced that reality a year ago when the Lynx won only 13 games in her first season with the team. Reeve asked Whalen to expand her game when they met before this season. She wanted Whalen to improve her three-point shooting and add a midrange game -- basically look to be more assertive shooting the ball without losing her attacking style.

Whalen spent extra time before and during the season honing her jump shot. She led WNBA guards in field-goal percentage and set a career high in three-point shooting. Whalen set a franchise record in assists, too.

"I can get to the basket. That's kind of my gig," Whalen said. "As you get older, you have to evolve your game."

She's still explosive and fearless on the drive, but the crash landings at the end of layups feel different at age 29. Between the WNBA and her European league, Whalen plays about 90 games each year, including playoffs.

She has one season left on her contract with her Prague team and intends to take her overseas career year by year after that. She pointed to 40-year-old teammate Taj McWilliams-Franklin when asked how much longer she hopes to play.

"Maybe I'll be like Taj," she said, smiling. "Hey, we'll see. As long as it's still fun and I feel good."

She can't complain on either front. She's at the top of her game, she's surrounded by a nucleus of talented players and, of course, she's playing in her hometown.

Whalen said it's difficult to compare her current situation to what she experienced with the Gophers in 2004 because the circumstances are so different. But she isn't taking anything for granted at this point in her career.

"At the same time, you've got to enjoy it and have fun," she said. "You get to play a game. It's been cool."

Especially when it involves making a game-saving play.

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com