Matchups between contrasting stars are always intriguing. And Minnesota's Maya Moore and Atlanta's Angel McCoughtry, Olympians whose teams meet in the WNBA Finals starting Sunday (ESPN and WatchESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET), certainly have their distinct differences.
Moore seemed like she was in her 30s even when she was an 18-year-old. She carries herself with almost a regal dignity, her emotions generally hidden behind the "Maya mask" that somehow successfully mixes implacability and humility. She will not let up until she defeats you, but she's not going to rub your face in it.
As much as Moore's countenance rarely gives anything away, McCoughtry's expressions say all kinds of things. Everything, actually. Over the years during games, you might see her look elated, irritated, amused, bemused, furious, frustrated, determined, resolved. In interviews, McCoughtry could be charming, funny and insightful -- or she could be borderline morose. Or somewhere in the range in between.
So this is a matchup between the polished and proper Moore versus the volatile chameleon McCoughtry? Well … not exactly.
Because as different as these two WNBA stars appear, they're also similar in ways both fairly obvious and more subtle.
We'll start with the obvious: They are two of the top players of their generation. Both were No. 1 picks in the WNBA draft, McCoughtry in 2009 and Moore in 2011. They both have explosive scoring ability. McCoughtry led the league in scoring average (21.5) for the second year in a row. Moore averaged 18.5 points in the regular season.
Thus far in the 2013 playoffs, Moore is at 21.5 ppg in four games, McCoughtry at 19.6 in five. Both scored 27 points in the clinching game of their respective conference finals Sunday.
McCoughtry is 6-foot-1, wiry strong and elite quick; she can make plays both offensively and defensively from seemingly out of nowhere.
"She has amazing athletic gifts that make it very challenging," Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said of McCoughtry. "Despite knowing what you need to do to defend her, it's a challenge to get it done because she is so gifted.
"She's an incredibly determined player, has a strong will. And I think the word 'relentless' is what comes to mind for me the most when watching her."
Moore is 6-foot and very strong, but with a grace in movement that is so much a part of her aesthetic as a player.
"You just can't go one-on-one against her defensively, you always have to have a player and a half," Atlanta coach Fred Williams said of Moore. "You have to have that help on defense. She's a tremendous athlete who can run the floor and do a lot of things in the open court. And you also have to try to keep her away from the boards."
McCoughtry is listed at guard/forward, and Moore at forward. They are both essentially wing players (small forwards), but both can play bigger or even smaller if needed.
They are both accustomed to success. Moore came into an already highly accomplished Connecticut program and still put her individual stamp on it, leading the Huskies to two NCAA championships, and two additional Women's Final Four appearances. UConn had an NCAA-record 90-game winning streak during Moore's career. And in all three of her WNBA seasons, Minnesota has made the league finals. She's going for her second WNBA title.
One of Moore's NCAA championships came at the expense of McCoughtry's Louisville squad. But the fact the Cardinals were in that national championship game in 2009 was because of McCoughtry having picked Louisville -- a choice she calls, "Out of the blue, spur of the moment … and wound up being one of the best decisions of my career."
McCoughtry played her first two years at Louisville for Tom Collen, and the last two for Jeff Walz. When Walz came into the Louisville program in 2007, he knew he had to take somewhat of a gamble in confronting McCoughtry head-on about her on-court demeanor. Not every new coach would have sat down with the best player the program had ever had and shown her essentially a mash-up video of her in-game expressions that could have been titled, "Angel's Demons."
But McCoughtry watched herself and realized the need to try to contain her disdain, because of the impact it could have on teammates (or officials, for that matter) and even herself.
Meanwhile, Geno Auriemma confronted Moore in a different way at UConn. She had the gold-star, best-kid-in-Sunday-school-class deportment, but Auriemma wanted her to have a little more swagger. She was never going to be Diana Taurasi in that department, but she could dominate games and impact her team at a Taurasi-like level.
However, that also meant Moore expanding her comfort zone offensively and realizing that her repertoire could and should be vast. She didn't need to settle for jump shots when she could get to the rim. She could make herself so consistently versatile that defenders simply had no idea what she was going to throw at them next.
Playing for high stakes
In the 2009 NCAA title game, Moore's Huskies finished an unbeaten season, and she had 18 points and nine rebounds in the 76-54 victory over the Cardinals. McCoughtry ended her Louisville career with 23 points and six boards.
Then McCoughtry was the No. 1 selection for the Dream, a franchise that had gone 4-30 in its inaugural season a year before. McCoughtry was WNBA Rookie of the Year and helped lead the Dream to the 2009 playoffs.
In 2010 and '11, Atlanta made the WNBA Finals, losing to Seattle and Minnesota, respectively. In the latter series, McCoughtry averaged 31.0 points and was nearly unstoppable. Moore, who was rookie of the year that season, averaged 11.3 points in the 2011 Finals.
Moore was surrounded by a Lynx team that was, overall, more talented than McCoughtry's Dream. But individually, McCoughtry was the highlight-reel performer of that series.
Last year, Moore was disappointed in her play and that of the Lynx, who lost the WNBA Finals in four games to Indiana. She came into this season not burdened by that, but also not forgetting the lesson.
As Moore said at the start of the 2013 campaign, "There were so many moments we let slip away last year."
Meanwhile, McCoughtry and the Dream wanted to let last year fully disappear into the past. The Dream entered 2013 seeking a different frame of mind after a tumultuous 2012 season.
McCoughtry had missed time with some combination of injury/unhappiness, at one point being in street clothes at a Dream game but sitting across from the opposing team's bench.
McCoughtry had some disputes with coach/general manager Marynell Meadors, who didn't appear to have a good handle on any of the volatility. Meadors was fired in late August 2012, and McCoughtry took heat in the media (including from this writer) for her part in the Dream drama. It seemed especially perplexing considering how vital a role McCoughtry had just played for the gold-winning U.S. Olympic squad, and how much she'd contributed as a team player there.
Yet after an initial suspension levied by new head coach Fred Williams, elevated from an assistant's role, McCoughtry -- who was out 10 games total in 2013 -- returned to action in Atlanta. And the Dream made the playoffs again.
They've done so all five of McCoughtry's seasons, and now she has a third chance at the WNBA title.
"It would mean a lot," McCoughtry said. "The mindset going in [is] just making sure we have a go-getter mentality. Trying to go in attack mode, no fear."
Moore, 24, and McCoughtry, 27 last month, are both more solitary by nature, and -- in their own ways -- somewhat impenetrable. Neither misses anything that goes on around them. Even when they don't let on, they are always watching, evaluating and processing.
Reeve compliments Moore on her stronger "connection with the group" this season. Reeve felt Moore relied on veteran/mother-like presence Taj McWilliams-Franklin to keep her more linked with the Lynx her first two seasons, but that Moore is doing that on her own now.
"Finding a way to … really become a part of the fabric, as opposed to being a little bit on the outside, I think she's really immersed herself into that," Reeve said. "With Taj not here, I think that was a challenge for Maya when she first got back to training camp. So she's matured. I think she's developed into a young leader."
McCoughtry has seemed to handle her team's hurdles this season pretty well, too. Point guard Lindsey Harding left via free agency, and forward Sancho Lyttle has been out most of the season with injury. Dream guard Armintie Herrington talks of a different, business-like vibe for Atlanta this year, and gives McCoughtry her due in helping maintain that.
McCoughtry had 146 assists during the regular season, by far the most of her career.
"That's something I've really preached to her, even when she was with her overseas team," Williams said. "To have the mindset of being a distributor, a triple-threat player. In training camp, I put her in a lot of situations like that in practice, so she'd have a better idea of passing out of triple teams or passing in transition when it's the best option.
"She's still learning that; she hasn't mastered it yet. But her passing and her getting steals [a career-best 89 this year] both really help us a great deal, along with her scoring, of course."
Now, both Moore and McCoughtry will close out this WNBA season, the kind of players that the spotlight will always find. Especially in the biggest games. But as we tally up the similarities and differences, we realize there is one more way they are alike, despite how opposite they surely seem to most observers.
They both express themselves musically. Moore is a drummer, and that's also the perfect extension of how she lives: consistently and diligently in rhythm. But there is also a kind of isolation for drummers; the drum set sits between them and others. Drummers can revel in jamming all on their own, but also know that if they're in a band, everyone depends on them to keep the beat.
McCoughtry is a singer who has a couple of songs available on iTunes, including one called "Baby Im a Star." Music for McCoughtry is another palette on which she can swirl a range of emotions that might be both uplifting and conflicting. And if you can't quite figure out McCoughtry, maybe you just accept you're not supposed to.
One of them will finish this WNBA season on the highest of notes. But to squeeze a little more out of the analogy, no matter what happens, neither will fall flat. They are both in their peak years, two performers about to go to work on the WNBA's biggest stage.