The route from Minnesota Lynx locker room to the court at the Target Center winds through a public concourse, where waist-high portable metal barriers separate fans from players. Before and after games, savvy adults and kids flock to the barriers, hoping to share high-fives and interact with their favorites.
Most Lynx players work that line with charm and grace, none more gregariously than Maya Moore. Tuesday night, though exhausted from her franchise-record 48-points in a double-overtime victory over Atlanta, Moore took her time going through, cheerfully signing autographs and posing for photos. If that constituency voted for governor, Moore might be commuting from St. Paul already.
That Moore found the energy to do this was, frankly, as impressive as how she performed. The 112-108 victory left Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen, who had 26 points and nine assists, so wiped out she could barely put a coherent sentence together.
Whalen and Moore each played nearly 46 of a possible 50 minutes against the most rugged and talented team in the Eastern Conference. Bodies flew everywhere. The officials could have called double the 48 fouls they did and still not kept things under control.
With Seimone Augustus missing her eighth consecutive game with left knee bursitis, Atlanta’s defense keyed on Moore. Somehow she found enough space to take 30 shots and make 16, including 7-of-9 from 3-point range. Only Riquna Williams, who racked up 51 points for Tulsa last year against San Antonio, ever scored more in a WNBA game. Katie Smith held the old Lynx mark of 46 in 2001.
“We kind of compared what Riquna got last year to her 48, and we had to say the 48 she scored the other night was a lot harder,” Augustus said.
“Atlanta was really trying to defend her. They were in her cuts. They were right there with every shot. Nothing was easy for her, as opposed to Riquna, who had a few open looks and things were kind of falling her way in that particular game. It was a very hard game for Maya to pull that feat off.”
By the third quarter Moore already topped 30 points, her tenth such game of the season, tying Diana Taurasi’s 2008 league record. Moore also grabbed 10 rebounds, dished four assists, and blocked her only shot in the final second of regulation, denying Erika DeSouza on a potential game-winning putback inside.
Last week, Tulsa Coach Fred Williams called Moore “the Michael Jordan of this league.” Moore’s effort Tuesday was unquestionably Jordanesque, against a team determined to stop her.
“That’s what’s impressive,” Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve said. “She has their full attention. They’re not trying to let her drop 48 on their heads.
“That’s why for me, it’s hands down who the MVP is in this league. It’s hands down. In my opinion, there’s no one close … . When you’re getting full attention, and Seimone Augustus is out, and they’re not guarding other people, that’s what she’s doing? It’s crazy. It’s crazy how good she’s been. And we needed every bit of it.”
No argument here. Who else is even in the conversation? Taurasi? Angel McCoughtry? Skylar Diggins? Tina Charles? All merit consideration, but Moore beats them all.
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Heading into Friday night’s game with San Antonio at the Target Center, Moore leads the WNBA in scoring (25.1 points), minutes per game (35.5), and efficiency (27.0). The latter is a metric determined by adding points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks; subtracting missed field goal and free throws attempts as well as turnovers; then dividing that total by games played. It favors good scorers who do a little bit of everything. And Moore’s 8.3 rebounding average per game exceeds her career best.
“When we’re sharing the ball, when we’re moving it, everybody’s contributing, that’s the most fun way to play,” Moore said. “But whatever it takes, playing in the moment. That’s what I enjoy doing.”
From the first day of training camp, Reeve needed Moore to contribute in multiple ways while Rebekkah Brunson, Monica Wright and Dev Peters recovered from knee surgeries. Brunson finally made her season debut Tuesday, logging an unexpected 35 minutes (“That was not the plan,” Brunson said) in a 17-point, 12-rebound effort that would have been the story of the game on any other night.
“Unbelievable,” Brunson said of Moore. “But she’s very capable and everybody knows that. It’s no surprise she’s able to put up those numbers if you give her the shots and she’s able to get good looks. She can knock them down.”
With 1:48 left in regulation, Brunson staggered off the court like she was done for the night. She wasn’t. Twenty seconds into the second OT, Moore found a rejuvenated Brunson inside for a three-point play that put the Lynx ahead for good.
“The one way I could hurt my team really was thinking too much,” Moore said. “If it’s my shot, if I’m open, shoot it. But if it’s not, dish it off. It’s really simple. Keeping things simple, staying focus, trusting in what we’re doing. And when I’m locked in on defense, my offense feels a lot better.”
Augustus practiced with the first unit on Thursday and is expected to play Friday night, giving Reeve 12 healthy players for the first time all season. “For Maya, life should get a little easier in that there should be more attention on Seimone,” Reeve said. “And I’m mindful of Whalen having two options.”
Whether that makes the 18-6 Lynx the equal of Western Conference-leading Phoenix (20-3), winners of 14 straight, remains to be seen. The Mercury dealt the Lynx their only Target Center loss, 80-72 on June 15, with Augustus hobbled, then won again four days later in Phoenix while Augustus sat out. Six-foot-8 center Brittany Griner dominated the 92-79 victory at US Airways Center, netting 27 points while matching a career high with 18 rebounds.
The Lynx need to overtake the Mercury to secure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, the best way to maximize their league-best 11-1 home mark. The Mercury will be here Thursday night. That gives the Lynx two games — Friday, then Sunday in Connecticut — plus two practices to get reacquainted. For Augustus, healthy equals formidable.
“At the All-Star Game (in Phoenix), a lot of the Mercury fans were borderline disrespectful — `We like beating up on the Minnesota Lynx, but we want to do it when you’re healthy,’ “ Augustus said. “Well, this is what they’ve been asking for. This is what they wanted, and this is what they’re going to get.”