Lynx finally coming through in clutch
West leaders, winners of six straight host Phoenix on Tuesday (ESPN2, 8 ET)
There are some athletes whom you never really expect to come through when it matters. You might like them a lot, think they are talented, hard-working, intelligent, deserving. But in the biggest moments, whether they're going up for a jump shot, crouched at bat, about to hit a putt, lined up for a penalty kick as you watch, you think, "This won't happen."
And then there are other athletes whom you always figure will strike gold. The higher the stakes, the better for them. You become so accustomed to their success, you see it occur in your mind a split second before it actually does. So when it doesn't happen, you're surprised.[+] EnlargeNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesDiana Taurasi is leading the league in scoring at 20.2 ppg.
Phoenix's Diana Taurasi is the latter kind of athlete, of course. She doesn't make every clutch play, but she has made so darn many that you can't possibly remember them all. Taurasi's "clutch-ability" was on display Saturday against New York.
Her five points and steal in the final 39 seconds slammed the door on what could have been a nail-biting finish and potential New York win. The Liberty were breathing down the Mercury's necks, trailing by a basket and then Taurasi took over.
She made a driving, contested layup; a stone-cold 3-pointer in transition; and a steal to seal the deal. The Mercury got a 91-84 victory and ended a three-loss skid that began before the All-Star Game. That sends Phoenix into Minnesota for a Tuesday matchup (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET) that just might be a preview of the Western Conference finals.
Admittedly, it's still way too early to feel sure of anything in the West. But if it does come down to the Mercury versus the Lynx in the postseason, we'll see if Minnesota can overcome the franchise history for -- there's no nice way to put this -- chronic underachievement.
We already know what Phoenix is capable of in the postseason; the Mercury have two WNBA championships. Minnesota has never won a playoff series, losing in the conference semifinals in both 2003 and 2004. The Lynx won 18 games in both those seasons, the highest victory total for the franchise.
The Lynx currently are on a six-game winning streak and at 13-4 seem very likely on their way to the most wins in franchise history. Sunday, Minnesota also had a memorable clutch-play moment, courtesy of point guard Lindsay Whalen's game-winning baseline jumper with 1.5 seconds left.
In the come-from-behind 70-69 triumph at San Antonio -- which is now without rookie sensation Danielle Adams for four-to-six weeks because of a foot sprain -- the Lynx did in the final minute exactly what they didn't in several key situations last year.
The Lynx, under then-new coach Cheryl Reeve, entered 2010 with the attitude that they were definitely going to end their postseason drought, and that anything less would be a big disappointment. It was actually very good to see that all-in attitude from Minnesota. Unfortunately, injuries and lack of closing out games kept the Lynx out of the playoffs once again.
This year, the Lynx are executing at the conclusion of games more often than not. They are controlling the action in crunch time. They are coming out on the right end of those contests that both teams have a great chance of winning. This is welcome new territory for the Lynx.[+] EnlargeClarke Evans/NBAE/Getty ImagesLindsay Whalen (23 points, seven rebounds, six assists, four steals) played as well Sunday as you could ever ask of any WNBA point guard.
Meanwhile, it's something that Phoenix, during its championship seasons, excelled at thanks mostly to Taurasi, Penny Taylor and former Mercury guard Cappie Pondexter. In 2007 and 2009, Phoenix won titles with those three consistently stepping forward to make huge plays with time expiring.
The Lynx, historically, have lacked those kinds of performers. They infamously traded away one of the few longtime Minnesota players who did have that mentality -- Katie Smith -- during the 2005 season. Then the Lynx took Seimone Augustus first in the 2006 draft and put that "you make it happen" responsibility squarely on her shoulders.
Augustus needed help -- not just from teammates with talent, but those with crunch-time talent. Players who don't fall apart or shy away or consistently fail when the pressure is on. Players who say, "I will take the responsibility of the big moment."
She has that now with the likes of Whalen, Taj McWilliams-Franklin and rookie Maya Moore. Rebekkah Brunson can be included on that list, too. Those four came to Minneapolis either last season or this one, and their presence has made a tremendous difference that Augustus surely appreciates.
Brunson (Sacramento, 2005) and McWilliams-Franklin (Detroit, 2008) both have won league titles, and Whalen (Connecticut, 2004-05) has played in the WNBA finals twice.
Against a gutsy effort from San Antonio, Whalen (23 points, seven rebounds, six assists, four steals) played as well as you could ever ask of any WNBA point guard. McWilliams-Franklin was also very good, with 15 points (7-of-9 shooting) and eight rebounds.
Brunson and Moore didn't score a lot, combining for just 10 points, but did other critical things. Brunson -- in a tight battle with Connecticut's Tina Charles for best rebounder of the 2011 season -- had 13 boards. Moore had five rebounds and five assists, including the pass to Whalen for the winning basket.
In fact, let's look at the last 3-plus minutes of Sunday's game, the "danger zone" time for past Lynx teams. Minnesota scored only six points in the final 3:13 but held the Silver Stars to four.
Augustus, who finished with 16 points, hit two tough jump shots in that stretch. But in the final minute and a half, she also missed three consecutive jumpers. The "old" Lynx still would have needed her to try once again. This year's Lynx don't necessarily rely on her to do that.
With San Antonio up by one and with possession, McWilliams-Franklin forced a jump ball, then tipped it to Whalen. Time out. The Lynx had 10 seconds left, needing two points to win. In the past, the play called would have been some variation of "Go make a shot, Seimone."
Instead, the Lynx worked the ball to Whalen for a good look. Moore had her own look just before that, but saw Whalen breaking free on the baseline and wisely fed it to her, realizing she had enough time to do so. Again, it was the kind of conclusion that had to totally delight long-suffering Lynx fans who've seen their team trip before the finish line so many times before.
Now, all this is not to jinx the Lynx. They might still have games that get away from them this season. But at least they've proven to themselves that they can get it done when the heat is on.
Taurasi has long excelled at that in college, in the WNBA and internationally. Saturday, because the standards for Taurasi are always high, you would have labeled the first 39 minutes, 20 seconds of that game as subpar for her -- she was 2-of-11 from the field at that point.
In the final 40 seconds, she was 2-of-2. The layup she made was from the left side -- one of those that displays her body control, strength and focus when driving to the basket. The 3-pointer was also vintage DT -- in fact, if you were going to pick one type of shot as her signature, the long-range bomb in transition might be it.
With many players, that's rarely a smart shot, because they don't hit it enough. For Taurasi, it was the kind of aggressive dagger we've become so used to seeing from her. The one that makes the other team/fans sigh, "Oh, no. That's it. She just killed us."
It certainly should not go unmentioned, though, that Taylor had a game-high 29 points against the Liberty, going 8-of-13 from the field and 11-of-11 from the line. Taylor's team-always-comes-first personality is such that she can have monster games like that and still very happily cede the spotlight to Taurasi's "clutch-ability."
It's not that Taylor doesn't also have that quality herself, just that few who've ever played women's hoops have had it to the degree Taurasi does.
As a franchise, Minnesota has lacked "clutch-ability" for most of the Lynx's existence. That's not the case in 2011, which should make Tuesday's matchup a blast to watch.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
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