Whalen provides more to Lynx than assists

MINNEAPOLIS – When Lindsay Whalen ran onto the Target Center court on Sunday, the crowd erupted. The cheers were never louder than at the moment when the former Golden Gopher was announced. That’s just how it is in Minnesota.

At tipoff on Sunday, Whalen was just three assists shy of setting the Lynx franchise record, but the applause had nothing to do with fans’ anticipation for the feat. Record or not, Whalen has entrenched herself as Minnesota basketball’s it girl. These fans love her, and with every game, every mark that Whalen claims as her own, she ensures that she’ll be more than loved. She’ll be remembered.

Eighteen seconds into the third quarter of the Lynx’s 83-59 win over Tulsa, Whalen flipped the ball to Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who scored on a jumper. Blink, and you miss the pass. Blink, and you miss Whalen’s 497th career assist as a Lynx. Blink, and you miss the moment when Whalen passes Katie Smith and her 496 assists and jumps into the record books.

Just seconds after Whalen logged the assist, her name was announced, and the Target Center again rumbled. To Whalen, though, the noise barely registered. She heard a yell of congratulations from coach Cheryl Reeve on the sidelines. She nodded, both an acknowledgement and a thank you. She received an inbound pass. The game went on.

“It’s great,” Whalen said of setting the record. “Especially (because) Katie Smith was the one before who had it, and it’s always good to be mentioned with her. But then I think it just shows our teamwork, the way we play as a team and how we play together.”

Whalen has made it known to her team that a record like this isn’t something she could have done alone. All along, she’s credited her teammates for making the shots and getting her the assists; each one is a two-part effort.

“The whole team can take credit in an accomplishment like that,” Whalen said.

She’s more than willing to share the credit, but it’s hard to imagine where the Lynx would be without her.

Whalen breaking the record seems almost expected. She’s been dishing assists at a clip that’s put her among the league’s best since she arrived in Minnesota in 2010, and her 5.5 assists per game mark is good for second in the league this season. What’s most stunning, then, is the pace at which she did it. It took Whalen less than 88 games to do what Smith did in 205. Whalen had logged just 2,589 minutes on the court for the Lynx at the time of the assist; it took Smith 7,287 minutes, nearly three times as long. Therein lies the beauty of what Whalen did. She didn’t break Smith’s record. She destroyed it.

“She just has a great recognition no matter how she’s playing… she just understands where people are going to be,” Reeve said.

“I think she’s unique in that she’s so physically tough. She’s got good size, at 5′ 9″. She’s kind of a hockey player playing basketball, and that fits Minnesota.”

Whalen finished the game with just four assists, breaking the record on a night in which she stood out more for her scoring (15 points) than anything else. In fact, Whalen’s biggest contribution on Sunday was not her assists, but rather her ability to stabilize the team as it finished the third quarter with just a seven-point lead over the league’s worst team. Reeve calls on Whalen in such situations, the coach said, to calm her teammates down, and on Sunday she managed to do so in a big way, helping facilitate a 25-7 fourth quarter and leading the Lynx to a win that clinched their playoff berth.

Even as she set the franchise assist record, Whalen proved that she’s worth so much more than that one statistic can convey.

Exactly two weeks before Sunday night’s win, Whalen was in London, competing in a record-setting game against China. In the 144-66 U.S. rout that tied the Olympic team scoring record, Whalen and her teammates also set a new team mark for assists in a game, with 33.

That night, Whalen finished with four assists. She was one contributor among many. It was a different kind of history, patriotic and team-centered and utterly dominant. That night, Whalen was able to blend into the crowd, to defer credit and praise to the starters and the more experienced Olympians. The point guard was one of many, a talented player among the world’s best.

When she returned to Minnesota, that ability to defer disappeared in an instant.

Whalen returned the hometown hero, the Minnesota native and University of Minnesota graduate turned Lynx star who’s becoming more and more comfortable with that role. The point guard joined the Lynx in 2010, and barely more than a year later she set the single-season franchise record for assists, logging 199 in 2011. A year after that, and she’s crushed a record set by a woman whom she watched as a young player following her hometown team.

With Whalen, it all comes back to Minnesota. With Whalen, it’s more than records or statistics. It’s impossible to quantify what this hometown hero brings to her team, and even a few mentions in a record book can’t convey her worth.

But they’re a start.


Joan Niesen on