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Maya Moore discovers her inner Michael Jordan … on defense

The WNBA’s leading scorer and Lynx superstar raises her game on the other end of the court.

Maya Moore: “Whenever there’s something that that needs to me done for my team, I kind of come alive and get turned on and want to get it done.”
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

The swelling is gone. That’s a plus. Maya Moore still has a trace of a shiner and five stitches next to her right eye, residuals from that midcourt collision with teammate Seimone Augustus in pursuit of a loose ball last Friday night against New York.

The joke, of course, is that Moore got the worst of it from a hustling teammate instead of a physical Liberty defender. Moore’s WNBA-record four consecutive 30-point games to start the season set a league record. But her defensive play in the only game she failed to score 30 — Monday’s 75-72 victory in Chicago — revealed just as much about her growth as a player.

With Rebekkah Brunson months away from returning from right knee surgery, the task of guarding the prolific 6-foot-5 Elena Delle Donne fell to the 6-foot Moore. Augustus usually defends an opponent’s top scorer. But Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve needed someone physical against Delle Donne, a silky forward who can be equally dangerous down low or on the perimeter. Delle Donne managed 16 points, well below her average of 23.5 points, on 7-for-19 shooting.

“I love the challenge of it,” Moore said after practice Thursday at the Target Center. “Whenever there’s something that that needs to me done for my team, I kind of come alive and get turned on and want to get it done. That’s where my focus gets locked into. Whenever I get a task I can focus on, I get excited for that. Last game, that’s what was required of me.”

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Michael Jordan became Michael Jordan the superstar in part by developing into a terrific perimeter defender. Moore sees herself on the same path. “All competitors don’t want any holes in their games,” she said.

Moore, the WNBA’s leading scorer at 29.8 points per game, won’t have a Delle Donne to contend with this weekend. The 5-0 Lynx, the WNBA’s last undefeated team, dive into home-and-home set with the San Antonio Stars, beginning Friday night at the Target Center and finishing Sunday afternoon in Texas.

But the Stars bring gifted offensive players like guard Becky Hammon, back after missing all but one game last season with a torn left knee ligament, and the improving Danielle Robinson. Moore might draw Kayla McBride, the rookie from Notre Dame who scored 30 against Tulsa on Tuesday night.

“What Maya has improved at is, she’s become a better athlete,” Reeve said. “Now, there are a lot of people that kind of go, wait a second, she was always a great athlete. No, she wasn’t actually. She was a great athlete straight up and down running, but some of her movements were lunging, off-balance.

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“Now if you look at her movements, they’re more mature. She’s staying in place. She’s using her gifts, her length, her agility, and her intelligence. That’s the biggest thing that you see with Maya. She understands the league. She understands what teams are trying to do. She’s no longer a player that you can go at. Her rookie year, we would always say, `Okay, Maya, they’re coming after you.’ But that’s no longer the case.”

Added Augustus: “Her first few years, people felt like they could attack her on that end to try to get her in foul trouble because they felt like she was a weaker defender. She took pride in not having a weakness in her game, and striving to get better every game.”

With Delle Donne, Moore concentrated on denying her the ball and keeping her out of her favorite shooting spots. Chicago is one of several WNBA teams who create mismatches by moving a versatile power forward like Delle Donne to small forward. (Los Angeles does the same with Candace Parker.) But Moore, who also plays both positions, devoted herself to the task.

“It was a combination of (watching) film and remembering things from last year as well — where she likes the ball, tendencies, her team’s tendencies with her, knowing certain spots on the floor are going to trigger certain actions,” said Moore, who had 14 points. “You let a great player like that catch the ball too many times, she’s going to burn you. I just wanted to put my most effort into not letting her catch it. If she can’t catch it, she can’t shoot it.”

On Chicago’s final possession, Moore prevented Delle Donne from catching the ball on her favorite side of the floor, the right. When the play broke down, Delle Donne ran Moore into a killer screen and headed for the top of the key, where Courtney Vandersloot held the ball out for her. Janel McCarville jumped out on Delle Donne first, then Lindsay Whalen. Delle Donne flung a desperate 3-pointer that banged off the glass and the rim, no good.

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“A year ago, we would not have been saying it was a good idea to put Maya on Elena Delle Donne,” Reeve said. “She just wasn’t there yet. We had better options. Now, Maya is a player who embraces it.

“Maya is coming off four games where she scored 30-plus points a game. And Maya goes into the game saying, `My focus is on defense.’ When that happens, as a coach, it’s a joy. It’s not because you wanted it. It’s because she wanted it. That’s what made her really good.”

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Moore is determined to defend like that all the time. Her goal: Become as reliable as Augustus. Or a certain sneaker mogul.

“Certain players are more gifted physically, but I know I’ve been given gifts and abilities to be a great defender and a great offensive player,” Moore said. “I don’t want to ever change my mindset and expect less of myself as a defender. Every time there’s a competition, I want to be able to dominate it. Whether it’s a defensive drill, a sprinting drill, offensive drill, I want to win. I know here, I’ll be tested and challenged in that.”