- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Personality-wise, they are a study in contrasts. The quick-with-quips, off-the-cuff, fearless exuberance of the Phoenix Mercury's Diana Taurasi versus the measured, deliberate, mildly guarded thoughtfulness of the Minnesota Lynx's Maya Moore.
And yet they have so much in common. Both were born on June 11; Taurasi in 1982, Moore in 1989. Both are UConn legends who went to the Women's Final Four every year they played for coach Geno Auriemma; Taurasi won three NCAA titles, Moore two.
Both were WNBA No. 1 draft picks who helped lead their respective franchises to their first league titles. Taurasi did that in her fourth season in Phoenix, Moore in her first season in Minnesota.
Both were U.S. national team members in major competitions at a young age. Taurasi was on the Americans' 2004 Olympic team during her rookie season in the WNBA. Moore was a senior in college when she played for Team USA at the 2010 world championship. They played together on the 2012 Olympic team, and they will do the same next month in the world championship in Turkey.
By that time, one of them might be coming off another WNBA title; Taurasi's Mercury have the league's best record, while Moore's Lynx have the second-best. And one of them, almost certainly, will have been named the 2014 WNBA MVP.
In a season where, as usual, there have been several very "valuable" performances, Moore and Taurasi have transcended the rest of the best. With the seven-year gap in their ages, the window in which both are at their athletic peaks is, of course, smaller than if they were direct contemporaries.
But there is no doubt that window is still wide-open now, and the individual brilliance of Moore and Taurasi has been -- and will continue to be through the playoffs -- the WNBA's most compelling subplot of 2014.
Elite from early on
Moore is averaging a league-best 24.2 points, along with 8.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.0 steals. Those are all career-high averages, except assists, where her previous career high was essentially the same: 3.6. She has scored 30 or more points 12 times this year, including a career-high 48 on July 22 against Atlanta.
Now in her fourth WNBA season, Moore has never missed a game. And especially this season, with the Lynx dealing with injuries to fellow starters Rebekkah Brunson and Seimone Augustus that kept both out for significant time, Moore being the "rock" has been vital to Minnesota.
"Whatever the team needs," Moore said, "that's what I want to be."
Taurasi is averaging 17.1 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.7 assists. This is her lowest scoring average for a full season since she was at 16.0 in 2005, her second year in the league. But her mission this season is not to maximize her own scoring potential. It's to maximize the scoring potential for the entire Phoenix team. To that end, it has been of particular importance to empower second-year center Brittney Griner.
"Shooting, getting to the basket, making the right pass -- Dee just does it all," Griner said. "She makes things easier for everybody else."
Excellence is what we quickly got used to from both Taurasi and Moore since they came to national prominence at UConn. But that was evident to those who saw them even before then.
"They were both extremely talented, above and beyond most anybody else in high school," former college and WNBA coach Gail Goestenkors said. "Even at a young age, they were relentless in their pursuit of perfection. They were always at another level, not just talent-wise, but what they expected from themselves. It continued through college and now the pros."
Goestenkors, while at Duke and then Texas, strategized against Taurasi and Moore during their UConn careers. She did the same in her time as an assistant with the Los Angeles Sparks.
"You always have to game plan around those two," Goestenkors said. "You knew when they had the ball, they were going to make something good happen for themselves or somebody else. Both will do what it takes for their team to win. And you knew at the end of games, you try whatever you can to keep the ball out of their hands. Because more times than not, they're going to make the big play.
"They not only embrace the big moments, but they excel in them. There are very few athletes across the board that have that quality."
Befitting their personalities, they tend to get things done on court a little differently. Taurasi is the more animated and vocal, encouraging -- or perhaps we should say demanding -- excellence from everyone around her.
"Including the officials," Goestenkors said, chuckling.
Moore also empowers her teammates, but she tends to do so more nonverbally, with a look or high-five or controlled fist pump. There is visible emotion and passion in how both play, but it's channeled in ways that match their individual styles.
Taurasi has that unbridled, often mischievous and hilarious irreverence. Of all the stars who have passed through the UConn orbit, she's the one most like Auriemma. You don't know what they might say next, but you know it will be exactly what they're thinking at the moment.
Moore does a great deal more automatic self-editing, if you will. You never get the sense she says anything in the public realm without careful consideration. Surely, Moore gets ticked off or has some smart-aleck quips cross her mind, but they don't cross her lips.
Yet there's that same grit that's at the core of both players. That understanding that they are gifted beyond most, that they are always expected to be superstars every time they step on the court. And they are OK with that.
Great, but still getting better
They are both 6 feet tall, but Moore is a forward, and Taurasi a guard. Taurasi has always played some point guard, including in college. But this year for Phoenix -- her 11th season in the WNBA -- she has fully embraced that position for the benefit of the Mercury.
"It's been a little bit of a role-reversal for me, playing point pretty much strictly," Taurasi said. "But I like it. I feel good doing it. It's not the hardest job when you have DeWanna Bonner, and Penny Taylor, and Candice Dupree and BG in the middle. It's a different challenge in a lot of ways for me.
"In the past, I had to score a lot for this team to be successful, and now that's not the case."
Her longtime pal and former UConn star Sue Bird says that we're seeing something that has always been part of Taurasi's repertoire.
"It's a decision she made for her team, not some magic point guard pill she took," said Bird, the point guard for the Seattle Storm. "I think she could have been doing this whenever she wanted. It's just that in previous years, they needed other things from her. Diana thinks the game from a point guard's perspective, and inside, she really is one."
As for Moore, her elegant coordination -- no one looks more powerful and graceful gliding up to the rim on a breakaway layup -- can obscure (at least to the lay person) that she has had to make up for things such as average lateral movement.
"I think Maya has gotten more out of her abilities than anybody I've ever seen," Goestenkors said. "Because she's so efficient with what she does, she excels. You only become that efficient through hours and hours and hours of hard work."
Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault calls Moore, "The hardest player in the league to prepare for. They can move her around; they play her on the wing and the post. She's strong, she's tough, she's one of the best athletes overall in the league."
Taurasi and Moore both have made considerable efforts to get as fit as possible, too, and that has helped them be better defenders.
And they are elite players who don't bristle at the idea that there are still things they can improve upon. In fact, they seem invigorated by constantly challenging themselves.
So which one will be MVP for 2014? Right now, the scales seem to be tipping toward Moore, even though the Mercury won three of the four meetings between Phoenix and Minnesota this season. It would be the first such honor for Moore; Taurasi was league MVP in 2009, when the Mercury won their second WNBA title.
Whatever the case, it has been a season to savor for two players who are taking their teams -- and the entire WNBA -- on quite a thrill ride.
19dBonnie D. Ford