- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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The WNBA season hasn't even begun, but it has already been a championship kind of year for Minnesota's Maya Moore.
Playing in China for the first time, she led her team to a title there. Then in April, she watched her alma mater, Connecticut, win its eighth NCAA women's basketball crown.
"Obviously the alums feel a part of it, but that was their journey, their struggle, their learning, their growing, their competing," Moore said of the 2012-13 Huskies. "It wasn't an easy season; there were ups and downs. But to see it come together in those two games of the Final Four, it just made me so proud."
It's a reminder, of course, that how you finish means everything in sports. And last season, that's what Moore's Lynx didn't do well. After having the best regular-season record for the second season in a row, Minnesota wasn't able to successfully defend its WNBA title.
The Lynx lost 3-1 in the WNBA Finals to Indiana, which included a bizarre Game 3 in which Minnesota was blown out.
"There were so many moments we let slip away," Moore said of last season's Finals. "We didn't fix our mistakes as we usually do. [The Fever] played very well and hit some tough shots, and I just don't think we responded well.
"When you get to that point in the season, you have to hit shots. And there were times when we just weren't hitting shots."
Nor did the Lynx play defense as well as they were capable of. Moore averaged 16.6 points and 5.2 rebounds in the Lynx's nine postseason games. Those numbers weren't much different from her regular-season averages of 16.4 and 6.0.
But even she had uncharacteristic moments in the Finals when she seemed hesitant or less aggressive than usual. What came together beautifully in the Lynx's run to the 2011 championship -- standout individual players blending seamlessly as a team -- just didn't happen quite the same way in 2012.
Moore was disappointed to not repeat, but she acknowledges there wasn't much time to dwell on it.
"It's one of those things … we go from one season to the other so quickly," she said of the quick transition to overseas play. "I'm sure as this [WNBA] season begins, we'll get back to the drawing board and think more about what happened. We've brought back a lot of players, and we could get another chance."
An opportunity at another title that, this time, doesn't seem nearly as predictable as it appeared to be last season. (Before that prediction went awry.) But by the same token, it wouldn't be coming out of the blue, either.
It's interesting how the expectations have altered in Minnesota. Going into the 2011 season, the Lynx were a pretty solid pick on paper to win the championship. Yet there were still external doubts, just because it was such uncharted territory for Minnesota. After all, the Lynx had made the playoffs just twice previously and had never been to the Finals.
Minnesota then was powerful throughout the 2011 regular season and playoffs, winning the title in a sweep of Atlanta. The Lynx came back in 2012 as a pretty big favorite to repeat. When Indiana's Katie Douglas was hurt early in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, it appeared all the more that it was the Lynx's title to lose.
But it didn't happen. So does falling short give Minnesota all the more motivation for 2013?
"I think we always play like we've got something to prove," Moore said. "What's done is done, even though the emotions from last year can motivate us this year a little. But we can't worry about what's going on outside of us."
The biggest thing "outside," of course, is Phoenix, which has key players back from injury and No. 1 draft pick Brittney Griner. There's sure to be plenty of hunger for the Mercury; their last title was in 2009, and they had the second-worst record in the league last season at 7-27. That put Phoenix in the Western Conference basement, with Minnesota at the other end of the spectrum at 27-7.
Will the Lynx finish first in the West for a third season in a row? Will Phoenix go from worst to first? Or might Los Angeles end up atop the West standings for the first time since 2006?
Moore, as we know from her UConn days, does just fine as a front-runner. And she also deals well with carrying a lot of weight. That's what she did in China over the winter, and she liked the experience.
Moore was the "franchise" on her Shanxi Xing Rui Flame team, averaging 38.7 points, 12.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 3.6 steals. Let those numbers soak in. Sure, her talent level is far above most of her foes in China, but those are still gargantuan stats. Moore scored 50 points or more four times in China, including one 60-point game.
Back in the United States during this winter, UConn coach Geno Auriemma occasionally would invoke Moore's name as a measuring stick for the superb (but at times struggling) freshman Breanna Stewart.
Meanwhile, while the memory of Moore was used to inspire Stewart, the real, live Maya was giving plenty of inspiration in person to her teammates in China.
"I definitely felt more like in a mother-hen role," Moore said. "I was constantly trying to look out for my teammates. I tried to teach the best I could, through the translator, to our younger players.
"But as far as pressure -- yeah, I knew I had to play well. But I didn't necessarily think about, 'If I don't score this amount of points …' It was just more, 'What do I have to do to help us win each possession?'"
Moore's head coach spoke Spanish. She had one Korean teammate, and the others were all Chinese.
"We had three translators every game," Moore said. "One of the assistant coaches also spoke English, which helped me. We had hand signals, and we could communicate with those. I learned the [Chinese] words for rebound, defense, shoot, pass -- especially defense and rebounding, because I knew I was going to be screaming that a lot. But we were able to make it work."
And Moore also found that non-verbal communication -- eye contact, a pat on the shoulder, a smile -- could carry significant meaning.
"The unspoken language of athletics -- it's really cool actually," she said. "We may not speak the same language, but if I just look at them and nod my head, it could lift their whole level of play.
"My teammates were very caring people, always trying to make sure I had what I needed. But I didn't have many conversations with people or get to know them, other than my teammates."
Moore did get to do some sightseeing -- including visiting the Forbidden City on a trip to Beijing -- and shared a lot of that cultural experience with her mom, who stayed in China with her for a few months.
After winning the championship -- over a team led by Liz Cambage, the Australian center who is not playing in the WNBA this summer -- Moore looked back at the whole experience in China fondly.
"It was a task with that many languages," she said. "But it made it more satisfying, too."
There are no language barriers with the Lynx, but that doesn't mean communication is automatic. And the Lynx still have to click the right way and at the right time to win a second WNBA championship.
"We just have to make sure we're setting ourselves up every day in practice to have the confidence to win because we know we've worked hard enough," Moore said. "We've got the talent."
14dBonnie D. Ford