MINNEAPOLIS — In a bout that finally lived up to its billing, the Minnesota Lynx relied upon their most constant imposition.
The helping hand of Lindsay Whalen.
The WNBA’s all-time No. 3 assists facilitator dished out a career-high and franchise-record-tying 14 of them Wednesday at the Target Center, sending crisp passes through minute windows in Los Angeles’ long, athletic defense. Half of them found Seimone Augustus on the other end, and the pair helped Minnesota gain a stranglehold on the Western Conference’s top playoff seed with an 83-74 victory.
“It just happened like that,” said Augustus, who led the Lynx with 23 points. “We didn’t even know she had 14 assists until coach came in here and told us. That was just the flow of the game; that’s how great it felt being out there with the looks that she was able to give me.”
As Minnesota has built a league-best 23-7 record and a 2 1/2-game lead over the Sparks in the West with four games remaining, heroic moments and performances have come and gone. Some nights, Maya Moore’s been the primary protagonist. Others, like Wednesday, Augustus has offered the biggest boost.
But almost always, there’s Whalen, directing traffic and not only finding openings, but taking full advantage of them.
Particularly in key moments.
“I wouldn’t trade Whalen for anybody in the league,” center Janel McCarville said, “or world, for that matter.”
Each helper in Whalen’s best-ever distribution display had its own distinct beauty. But one at the end of each half proved crucial as the Lynx evened their 2013 series against Los Angeles (21-10) at two games apiece.
The home team has won out in each meeting, but for the first time this season, the fourth quarter had 9,314 fans standing up in their seats, not leaving them behind.
Minnesota’s “horrific” fourth-quarter offensive execution, as Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve put it, allowed the Sparks to whittle a deficit that stood at 16 with 5 1/2 minutes remaining. A pair of free throws by Candace Parker (game-high 25 points) capped a 13-4 Los Angeles run and brought them within 75-70 at the 56-second mark.
Whalen calmly found Augustus in the left corner on the Lynx’s ensuing sojourn away from their basket, and the veteran wing knocked down a patented, outcome-sealing 19-foot jumper with 39.5 seconds to go.
“I don’t really want to take too much credit,” Whalen said. “I got it there, and she made the shot.”
In order to protect a lead, Minnesota first had to construct it.
The Lynx went into halftime up 45-33 — their largest advantage to that point — thanks to a buzzer-defying 3-pointer by McCarville. Whalen toyed with fellow All-Star guard Kristi Toliver for nearly 10 seconds and nearly lost the ball at half-court before launching a slightly off-kilter dart to her former University of Minnesota teammate, who was camped out in the left corner about a foot in front of Minnesota’s bench.
McCarville, who’s found an outside shooting touch during the second half of the campaign, collected it in time to rattle home her sixth 3 of the season on 12 attempts.
“It wasn’t a good pass,” cracked McCarville, who couldn’t recall previously hitting a buzzer-beating 3 at any point in her career. “I always tell her good passes make good shooters, but I was able to add up one more assist for her.”
McCarville sprinted toward the tunnel with three fingers on each hand held aloft. Reeve cracked a rare in-game smile.
Whalen maintained that same stoic demeanor she’s carried for a decade of professional hoops.
“I kind of felt like when I got it to her, she was going to make it,” said Whalen, who tallied one more assist than the entire Sparks roster. “It was just like, ‘OK, unbelievable shot, now let’s get to halftime, get in here, make a couple adjustments and get ready for the second half.'”
Employing similar acuteness, Whalen operates an offense with which she’s become better-versed than any other Lynx player. It’s a scheme that takes advantage of mismatches — lately, Moore or Augustus against smaller guards in the low post.
But it takes a keenly aware floor general to exploit them.
“In our offenses, she understands, ‘If they guard me this way, and if they guard the post player this way,'” Reeve said. “She understands as soon as a defender steps in a certain direction. She just understands it. She gets it.”
Augustus was the No. 1 beneficiary Wednesday. Reeve spent the past couple weeks clamoring for her to take more charge offensively; just because Moore has put up 30-point nights doesn’t mean the Lynx’s other top shooter ought not to attack the basket.
So Whalen looked to Augustus early and frequently against Los Angeles.
“It’s always one of my focuses to get people going early and try and get ‘Mone touches,” said Whalen, who’s nine points away from becoming the WNBA’s second player to amass 4,000 points, 1,500 assists and 1,000 rebounds. “Just let her get the rhythm and flow. She is such a great player that you want to make sure she is getting a couple good looks early and being aggressive.”
It was a needed connection, as the Sparks avoided a blowout like the one they suffered June 28 inside the same venue. That 88-64 Minnesota win was sandwiched between a pair of lopsided defeats at the Staples Center, victories that put Los Angeles right alongside the Lynx in search of home-court advantage through the conference finals.
Augustus shot 10-of-18 from the floor in her most productive night offensively since scoring 29 against Tulsa on Aug. 16.
“Five games left,” Augustus said. “If you don’t turn it up now, I don’t know when you are going to turn it up.”
Moore added 20 points and knocked a left-wing 3 with 7 minutes left in the fourth quarter that gave Minnesota a 69-55 cushion.
A closely-officiated, physically taxing affair saw both teams whistled for 19 personal fouls apiece. Angst nearly boiled over when McCarville stepped over Nneka Ogwumike following Parker’s lead-trimming freebies. Ogwumike got up and gave McCarville a light shove, prompting a double-technical foul call.
Afterward, Reeve jokingly blamed it on McCarville’s spectatorship at Tuesday night’s World Wrestling Entertainment showcase at the Target Center. “It kind of amped me up a bit,” joked McCarville. “I saw the guys out there body-slamming each other and — no, it was the heat of the moment, nothing special. I don’t think it’s gonna carry over or anything like that. Just playoff-atmosphere basketball for us.”
Before the actual postseason, however, attention turns toward a three-game road swing that includes back-to-back clashes at Seattle and a rubber match at Los Angeles.
Thanks largely to Whalen’s performance, Minnesota will man the Western Conference driver’s seat heading into the trip.