MINNEAPOLIS — Assess. Attack. Annihilate. All while maintaining enough poise and influence to keep a group of moving parts churning at an efficient pace.
It’s the desired cause-and-effect sequence for every point guard at every level of basketball. Lindsay Whalen learned it a young age, cultivated it while putting her home state on the national women’s basketball map and honed each of its finer points during her first nine years of professional play.
The resulting masterpiece has the Minnesota Lynx on the cusp of dynastic achievement.
“Lindsay’s the heart and soul of this team,” forward Seimone Augustus said.
And the mind. And the spirit. And the muscle.
Whalen’s numbers in her 10th WNBA season offer credence to her most remarkable year yet, one in which she scored more frequently than ever and resumed full command of the league’s most productive offense. Her 14.9 points per outing are a career high, and her 5.8 assists are within a fraction of one.
Yet it’s the esoteric, price-of-admission values Whalen exudes that have the Lynx two wins away from a third straight WNBA Finals appearance. They don’t show up on a spreadsheet, and only an in-person viewing experience allows them to be fully appreciated.
Even on television, you may not hear the thud of the 31-year-old’s body as she collides with two defenders a head-and-a-half taller than her on the way to a 3-point play. You don’t see all the one-on-one chats that take place with coach Cheryl Reeve, a constant back-and-forth where each basketball mind lends her own unique perspective. You can’t sense the enthusiasm in rookie point guard Lindsey Moore’s demeanor as she takes whatever tidbit Whalen offers her and orchestrates Minnesota’s offense almost as effectively.
Whatever must be done, Whalen does it. All while maintaining a visible and contagious constancy of purpose.
“If you’re on the inner circle, you know how Whay’s personality impacts this team in everything that we do,” coach Cheryl Reeve said. “Whether we’re in a meeting, in shootaround, in a practice, in game situations, she imposes not only her will to win and her competitive drive but her intelligence for the game.
“She has a knack for that and does it in a way that everybody’s all ears when she does it.”
It’s the stuff of championship legends, not individual glory. A lot of that went to Maya Moore this season, and for good reason — the third-year pro’s electric athleticism and night-in, night-out scoring presence rendered her a prime MVP candidate, and most women’s hoops buffs around here were disgruntled when Los Angeles forward Candace Parker edged her out.
But without Whalen, Moore doesn’t get as many open 3-point looks and shoot a career best from long distance. Center and former University of Minnesota teammate Janel McCarville doesn’t receive the ball in a perfect spot to turn and shoot or dish to a streaking wing on the way to two points. Augustus doesn’t have as many chances to display her ice-cold isolation skills, because there’s a good chance Whalen took the ball away or at least disrupted a possession at the other end of the floor.
“Lindsay Whalen is a big part of everything that we do,” Reeve said, “at all times.”
Let the Lynx’s two-game sweep of Seattle in the first round serve as the most recent evidence.
Whalen didn’t light up the scoreboard at either Target Center or the Tacoma Dome in Washington, scoring just 13 points combined and shooting 6-for-17 from the floor. While that’s uncharacteristic, she ensured the ball rotated into forward Rebekkah Brunson — who’s again turned up her game for the postseason — in Game 1 and helped limit Storm point guard Temeka Johnson to just two points in Game 2.
That same night out west, Whalen hit a jumper to beat the first-quarter buzzer and give Minnesota a 20-16 advantage in a game it would go on to win by three.
Those are the game-turning moments — a big shot, a momentum-seizing steal, a sellout dive for a loose ball — that make Whalen so valuable.
“The intensity that she brings to the game, just being a floor general within itself, says a lot about who she is as a player, and just how tough she is,” Augustus said. “Every night, she’s on the floor, driving to the basket, challenging some of the bigger post players in this league, and she hops right back up and she’s right back at it. It gives us a lot of motivation there.”
It requires sacrifice.
Whalen’s style of play makes for plenty of bumps and bruises. Last year, she played with a broken finger and a bruised wrist. Even so, she’s missed only one game the past three seasons.
If there’s one thing she’s learned after six years in Connecticut and four in Minnesota, it’s the value of rest.
Even if it means sitting and squirming while her teammates practice inside the Target Center Lifetime Fitness facility.
“You can’t be stubborn to get out there,” Whalen said. “Sometimes, you’ve got to listen to your body a little more. You can maybe get away with it when you’re a little younger.”
She happened across some extra time off this past offseason, too. A contract dispute with her team in Turkey caused her to come back sooner than planned, and she spent a few months recuperating and working out in Minneapolis.
“I think more than anything, Whay’s ability to be on the floor, to be a person at practice that competes at the highest level,” Reeve said when asked about Whalen’s importance. “That requires health and taking care of your body. I think Whay is really in a good spot with that.”
The franchise’s ownership and general management apparently agreed when they signed Whalen to a three-year extension earlier this month, giving her a very realistic shot at finishing out her illustrious career in her home state.
There’s nowhere else she’d rather do it.
“It’s been fun to be back here, of course, at home and doing it among a great group of people,” said Whalen, who graduated as the leading scorer in Gophers history and led them to the 2004 Final Four. “Just getting to be here and be around family is always fun, and being able to put it together on the floor is really cool.”
A second championship in three years would be even cooler.
The Lynx square off with Phoenix in a best-of-three Western Conference finals series that opens at 8 p.m. Thursday in the Target Center. The Mercury are coming off an upset of No. 2 seed Los Angeles and boast one of the league’s other premier guards in Diana Taurasi.
But as long as Whalen keeps being Whalen, Minnesota’s chances at avenging last year’s finals loss to Indiana remain fully intact.
“Whalen’s passion comes through when she plays,” Reeve said. “She’s really embraced the idea of setting the tone. If you ask Lindsay, that’s her goal every game. ‘How can I set the tone? How can I help set the tone for the team, and how this game is gonna go?’ She’s really embraced that and has done a tremendous job in that area.”