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MINNEAPOLIS -- Throughout the two hours before tipoff, Minnesota Lynx center Taj McWilliams-Franklin occupies herself with nonbasketball diversions. Painting her nails. Maybe stitching up a dress (she makes her own clothing). Anything to clear her mind, chill out and set a relaxed example for everybody else.
Before Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals Tuesday, McWilliams-Franklin watched a Red Auerbach special on NBA TV; Bill Russell is one of her heroes.
Why be nervous? McWilliams-Franklin, 41, had played in a lot bigger games than this -- it would be her 50th WNBA playoff game, and she's been to the Finals three times. Her task was simple: play better than she had in the first two games of the series, in which she scored nine points combined.
Naturally, she did.
McWilliams-Franklin, a mother of three known around the Lynx as "Mama Taj," contributed 16 points, three rebounds and four assists as Minnesota eliminated San Antonio 85-67 and advanced to the Western Conference finals. The top-seeded Lynx, who had never won a playoff series since joining the WNBA in 1999, host Phoenix in Game 1 on Thursday night at the Target Center.
"It's always the same in here, laughing and joking, people being silly and crazy, saying crazy stuff. It's our normal locker room," McWilliams-Franklin said.
"People think when a team plays really good, they're really serious in the locker room. It's the exact opposite for us. The steam and the pressure is released in here. They're cracking jokes with each other, messing around. That's the kind of release you need so you can be looser when you go out."
The locker room is McWilliams-Franklin's domain, where she reigns as part mom, part cop and part coach. A six-time All-Star and an All-WNBA second-team selection in 2005-06, McWilliams-Franklin isn't the player she used to be. The Lynx signed her as a free agent as much for her presence and leadership as for her ability.
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve was an assistant in Detroit in 2008 when the Shock acquired McWilliams-Franklin during the season. She helped the Shock win their third WNBA title with a strong postseason, averaging 12.9 points on 49 percent shooting and seven rebounds.
But McWilliams-Franklin had an impact beyond statistics, which Reeve never forgot. So this year, on the first day of free agency, Reeve interrupted an Australian vacation to call McWilliams-Franklin at 2 a.m. local time to sell her on Minnesota.
"She has a great attention to detail, whether it's screening, angles, all little things in your offense," Reeve said. "When she practiced with us [in Detroit], our offense got better because she screened for players and our players were now open. If your timing is bad on a screen, Seimone [Augustus] is not open or Maya [Moore] is not open. So I knew she'd give us that.
"She just has a maturity about her and an ability to communicate with other players, and understanding what I want. That type of thing is invaluable. I can't get to them a lot of times in the locker room, and I feel really, really comfortable Taj is in the locker room with them, policing times when she recognizes somebody is not focused."
This season McWilliams-Franklin started 33 of 34 games, averaging 8.3 points and six rebounds while leading all WNBA centers with 81 assists. A classic post player who can shoot with either hand off either block, McWilliams-Franklin sets a mean screen on a pick-and-roll, often teaming with Augustus.
McWilliams-Franklin is so old school she wears special-order white Russell-era knee pads that she bleaches before every game. White sneakers, too.
And she shares responsibility with point guard Lindsay Whalen for making sure their teammates carry out Reeve's instructions. Often, McWilliams-Franklin looks for Reeve during dead-ball situations and inbounds plays.
"When they got her to come here, I was really happy because I knew the positive impact she would have on the team," said Whalen, who played three seasons with McWilliams-Franklin for the Connecticut Sun. "She knows the ins and outs of every play. It's like having another coach on the floor."
Former Shock coach Bill Laimbeer, now a Minnesota Timberwolves assistant, thinks McWilliams-Franklin provided the piece the Lynx had lacked.
"Her all-around game is solid, not spectacular anymore, just solid," he said. "She understands her role. But just the leadership and the presence that she provides was the glue the Minnesota team needed.
"They had a lot of young talent. They were bringing in another one in Maya Moore. They needed somebody to be the calming influence in the whole situation, and that's why [Reeve] went out and got her."
Moore, the WNBA rookie of the year, clearly benefited from McWilliams-Franklin's influence. McWilliams-Franklin's youngest daughter, Maia, pronounces her first name the same as Moore's, and McWilliams-Franklin gets a kick out of seeing Moore's head turn when she talks about her daughter.
"She is truly Mama Taj, on the court, off the court," said Moore, who had 14 points and six rebounds in Game 3 after fouling out of Game 2. "She's constantly trying to find a way to help somebody. As a rookie, I couldn't be more grateful.
"Not only is she willing to talk, but she knows what she's talking about. She's not one of those people who talks just because she can. She's one of the people I listen to, because most of the time when I do, something good happens."
McWilliams-Franklin knew she and forward Rebekkah Brunson, likewise ineffective offensively in the first two games, needed to be more involved in Game 3. Brunson just missed a double-double Tuesday night with 15 points and nine rebounds, and made seven of eight shots from the line -- commendable for a 67 percent foul shooter in the regular season who missed two big ones late in Game 1.
"Coach mentioned to the guards that they had to get the posts touches," McWilliams-Franklin said. "Me and Rebekkah talked after the last game that we have to be in better position to score, and be in better position to help offensively. We just had to step up and do things, because the team needs us."
Both must be more involved against the relentlessly up-tempo Mercury, the WNBA's highest-scoring team. The Lynx won three of five meetings this year but lost the highest-scoring regulation game in WNBA history, 112-105, on July 13 at the Target Center. Minnesota, which relies heavily on defense and rebounding, lost only three home games all season.
For McWilliams-Franklin, her responsibility starts in the locker room.
"She's Mama Taj for a reason," Reeve said. "She has a presence in everything -- what they're wearing, what they're saying. And I think they appreciate the heck out of her."