Moore a truly unique asset for WNBA’s Lynx

MINNEAPOLIS – I like Maya Moore.

I like her as a person. I like what she’s done for women’s basketball. I like that she’s often the last player off the practice court, that the truths that come out of her mouth would sound like clichés from any other.

I like that she says she gives the same effort for every game, no matter the opponent, and that when she says it, we believe it. I like that she talks about her teammates with genuine appreciation, that there’s never even a hint that she minds not being the only star.

I like that the world views her as a dominant athlete who happens to be female. Not a sex symbol, not an inferior player, but a true competitor.

These are all things that Moore does off the Target Center floor. They say nothing about her contributions to her team and its record or even where she stands among the league’s best. Casual fans of women’s basketball know her not for the Lynx or her WNBA accomplishments. They know her from UConn, from Nike, from magazines and newspapers and the Olympics.

For a league that’s emerging and growing, that’s often enough. On many nights even for the Lynx, that’s enough. But not on Monday. On nights like that, it’s impossible not to see Moore as anything more than a bona fide star, and it’s easy to wonder just how great she really might be.

On Monday night against the Indiana Fever, Moore finished with 29 points, a career high, going six-for-eight on 3-pointers. She notched 16 more points than the next-highest scorer on the team, Lindsay Whalen, and her seven rebounds tied her for second-best on the team. That night, Moore in the abstract was not enough. That night, Moore was impossible to ignore.

Maya Moore was in charge, which on the Lynx is a rare luxury. But against Indiana she was the separator, the player who pushed the second-half wedge between her team and the Fever. Five of her six threes came in the third quarter, which set a franchise record, and watching her play, it was hard to doubt that Moore was making history.

Watching, at least. In the moment for Moore herself, it somehow seemed closer to normal.

“The coaching staff just made me aware of what actually happened,” Moore said after the game. “Because in the moment, you’re just playing. We wanted to really make a statement in the second half.”

That was a statement, no doubt, but less by the Lynx and so much more by their second-year star. Maya Moore has arrived.

That would be a big statement based on just one game, but a quick glance at Moore’s statistics since the Olympic break tells the story of something new, something different and almost frightening. In her past 10 games, Moore is averaging 19.3 points per game, good for fourth-best in the league and best on the Lynx. She’s been consistently spectacular, especially in the minutes that it mattered most, and her team has gone 11-1 over that stretch.

So yes, somehow the player who won last season’s Rookie of the Year Award, who was selected to the 2012 Olympic team and won a WNBA championship on her first try, might still not quite have arrived.

Maybe London flipped a switch. Or maybe it’s just a quirk of timing. There’s no way to pinpoint a precise reason for Moore’s higher level of play recently, but it’s easy to guess that she gained confidence and experience in London, where she was able to transition into a starting role as the youngest player on the team. That’s what Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve believes, and Moore has spoken about her efforts to carry over what she learned there to the remainder of the WNBA season.

Moore has always been great, ever since she was a high school star and a college phenom and the WNBA’s best rookie. Greatness is built into who she is and what she brings to a team, but now we must wonder: Can Moore be even greater?

“As far as greatness, you know, I guess we just don’t think in those terms,” Reeve said. “We’re just thinking that Maya played a really good game. I think externally Maya has kind of come into that place that people expected of her and is one of a couple of MVP candidates.”

Ever since Moore came into the league, there’s been the implicit assumption that her teammates have made her life easier. She was a large factor in last year’s championship, but she didn’t have to do it on her own, and really, that was the key to the Lynx’s success. She’s never had to shoulder an unbearable burden, and she’s shared the spotlight with grace. It’s easy to wonder what her individual statistics would be on another team, but it’s all too clear that the Lynx are not holding her back. They’re letting her grow at a healthy and reasonable pace.

But if the past month has proved anything, it’s that maybe we’re assuming wrong. Any thought that the Lynx’s star power and distribution of scoring might limit Moore has to be discarded. Whatever ceiling we imagined might not be in play anymore.

Moore is going to do what her team needs of her, seemingly no matter what it takes. It’s going to be jaw-dropping, at times, and utterly dominant. But to Moore, it’s just natural. There’s no magic moment in a game when it dawns on her that it’s time to take control. She’s always thinking like that, looking for the best way to own her opponent and lead her team.

“That’s who I am. I’m always looking to make a play,” Moore said. “I’m always thinking about how can I help my team, so regardless if we’re up 10 or down 20, I’m always looking to make a play and help my team.”

With Moore, it always comes down to team. She’s leery to talk about individual success; that horse has been beaten to death in Georgia and Connecticut and again here in Minnesota. If the past few games really do represent a redefinition of what she might be capable of, she’ll never admit it. She’ll just keep playing like she has as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. Moore does this right, earning her praise with her on-court play and keeping it with her attitude.

But even the stoic must crack. Moore loves this game as much as it seems to love her. Even the stoic must have fun.

“When you start hitting shots, you start to feel good,” Moore said. “The more shots you hit, the better you feel.”

Maya Moore must feel like she’s on top of the world. Or at least getting there, because at this point, it’s hard to know exactly where that top might be.

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