Defense might win you a championship, but you still need a superstar player to get to the Finals. And if you didn’t know from the the four rings, a League MVP trophy, and the three All-Star Game MVPs, Maya Moore is that person for the Minnesota Lynx.
She has gone to great lengths to get there, as shown when she became just the second woman to grace the cover of SLAM! magazine. She used to play many late evenings at parks and was driven by her mother to competitions around the country for years to get where she is now.
And where is she? On the cusp of pushing the Lynx to a fifth title in eight seasons.
It didn’t look like that on Thursday in a Finals rematch against the L.A. Sparks, and wasn’t necessarily the case just a few weeks ago. Ten games into the season, Minnesota had won just four and it looked like the team was going to fail at repeating for a title yet again. The Lynx have a San Antonio Spurs-like record of not being able to win back-to-back championships, having picked up the crown in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017.
The core of the team – Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen, Rebekkah Brunson, Moore and the reigning MVP Sylvia Fowles – has 29 All-Star appearances between them. But they also have a good supporting cast of younger players like Temi Fagbenle, Danielle Robinson and Cecilia Zandalasini, who offer plenty of support in limited minutes. Per-36, the latter three are fourth, fifth and sixth in scoring on this loaded roster.
Augustus, Whalen and Brunson have been running together since 2011, when Moore first joined the team as a rookie, so you can forgive the ageing squad for coming out of the gates slightly slower than usual this season. But since winning 40% of their first 10 games, the Lynx have gone 11-5 and are battling for a good seed in the playoffs.
Moore was averaging 17.8 points during Minnesota’s first 10 games, but in the last 15 she has pushed this up to 18.5. It’s not all been roses for her, but there was a stretch where she scored 20 or more in seven straight games. The four losses Minnesota had in July were occasions where Moore wasn’t there offensively, scoring 9, 16, 12 and 5, respectively.
Fowles is still great defensively, and the reigning MVP is posting 17 and 11 per night. But just like Moore, she has been inconsistent since the start of July, only managing to score double digits in consecutive games twice.
Perhaps the Lynx were just fatigued to start the season. Losing in heartbreaking fashion at the 2016 Finals weighed on the team emotionally, and the players poured every bit of themselves into the 2017 campaign. And considering so many of them play in overseas leagues, sometimes right up to the point or even after the WNBA season begins, some players are barely rested to the start of the year.
Still, it was a successful revenge championship against the rivals that foiled them the previous year, the L.A. Sparks, but after having a core together for a long time, boredom seeps in (just ask the Golden State Warriors).
And what’s more, outside Moore, the core four are getting older. Fowles is the youngest at 33 and still performing like an All-Star. Augustus is averaging 10, 2 and 2 at 34 and got into the All-Star game thanks to being somewhat of a fan favourite. The 36-year-old Whalen isn’t performing to the same level of her younger days and Brunson probably received her last All-Star invite while averaging 7 and 7, in part, because the game was taking place in Minnesota.
That’s not to say the team is a write-off: quite the opposite. The Lynx are a contender for this year’s title, especially as the playoff race is separated by just a few losses between the second and ninth seed. After losing to the Sparks on Thursday, Minnesota is now in fifth place and needs to make a push for the Finals, but if the team gets there it would be tough to pick against them.
They may be older, but Minnesota’s mainstays still know what it takes to win championships. It would be tough to bet against Whalen dishing out eight assists in one game of the Finals and putting up 20 points in another. No one is going to stop Fowles securing 15 rebounds and stopping five shots in one game. There will be moments where Augustus gets in the lane and causes all sorts of problems for the opposing defense. And it’s not incomprehensible that Brunson could average a double-double in the most important games.
They will turn it on if they have enough left in the tank and if the team needs it. But to get the Lynx playing for their fifth ring, Minnesota will need consistency from Moore. When she has scored well, the team has won, and even when her scoring has been down but she has stayed aggressive, the team has pulled together. This was evident just before the All-Star break against the New York Liberty, when Moore was just 3-of-15 from the field but grabbed seven rebounds and shot seven free throws. It set the tone and opened things up for players like Fowles, who shook loose of the defense for 27 and 11, and other games like this have seen role players like Fagbenle have up their production.
The stars have to be stars, and in previous seasons, Maya Moore has been relied upon to be that person. She opened proceedings against the Sparks in this way on Thursday, responsible for the Lynx’s opening eight points after three buckets of her own and a steal that led to a layup.
But Moore couldn’t keep it going past the first quarter and ended up sitting on the bench for the whole of the fourth. This was partly because teams are figuring out ways to keep her away from the action, or pressuring her well when she does have the ball, as was evident against the Seattle Storm one day later.
Defense and quick baskets won the game for @seattlestorm last night in the second half. Look how aggressive they were here, essentially playing four defenders against two offensive players. It changed the game. They are locked in to championship mode #WNBA pic.twitter.com/a83T45MujV
— Huw Hopkins (@hopkins_huw) August 4, 2018
But this has been a condensed WNBA season that has tired out many teams. If Moore can keep her energy for extended stretches in the playoffs, she could lead her team to a fifth championship since 2011 and the Minnesota Lynx could be the best WNBA franchise of all time. But she needs to be the superstar Minnesota knows and loves.
Featured photo – via AP / Double Clutch illustration