Whalen flourishes in second season with Lynx
By Jon Krawczynski
AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS -- It's in the snap of her neck on a no-look pass to finish a fast break. It's in the flick of her wrist as she puts a little English on the ball on a reverse layup. It's in the pump of her fist as another opponent calls timeout to stunt a Minnesota Lynx run.
The signs are both subtle and overt when Kathy Whalen watches her daughter Lindsay on the basketball court these days. The weight of playing in her home state that stifled her last season is gone now -- and it's made all the difference.
"She put that pressure on herself to make sure she was available for everything," Kathy Whalen said. "It just wore her down. It really did. I know this year she has said no to a lot of things and I think she's had to. But it shows in her game."
In her second season back home in Minnesota, and with No. 1 overall pick Maya Moore around to share some of the spotlight, Lindsay Whalen has been able to focus more of her energy on the court than and not feel as guilty for turning down some of those marketing and public appearances she felt compelled to do a year ago.
Whalen set career highs in points (13.6), assists (5.9), field goal percentage (.511) and 3-point shooting (.405) to emerge as an MVP candidate while leading the Lynx (27-7) to the best record in the WNBA. They open their first playoff appearance in seven years against San Antonio tonight.
"I think I've kind of benefited from so many people doing so well," Whalen said. "I feel like the attention has really been dispersed throughout the team. I think that's really been a good thing.
"If you are out in the community and doing a lot, it's great. But you've got to get ready for the game, too. It's like with anything, you've got to find a balance. I think the team and the whole organization have found that this year."
It's exactly what everyone had in mind -- the Prairie Home point guard who still has some of that Minnesooooh-tah accent to go with the Rucker Park flair and ferociousness that highlight her game.
Everyone just had to wait a year longer for it all to come together.
After resurrecting the dormant University of Minnesota women's program and leading the Gophers to the Final Four in 2004, Lynx fans clamored for the team to trade everything it had to keep Whalen at home.
It took CEO Roger Griffith eight years to finally make it happen. After missing out on Whalen in the draft, Griffith sent the No. 1 overall draft pick in the 2010 draft and Renee Montgomery to the Sun for Whalen and a first-round pick.
The move elated the fan base and even started to bring more casual followers back to Target Center. Thrilled to be home, Whalen took on the added responsibility of being an ambassador for the team and the league. She served as the grand marshal for a Minneapolis parade, participated in a Lindsey Whalen day in Hutchinson and appeared at dozens of camps and public events to try and spur interest in her sport.
Burning the candle at both ends took its toll.
Whalen's 41 percent shooting and 23 percent 3-point shooting last season were among the worst marks of her career. That, coupled with injuries to star Seimone Augustus and valuable role player Candice Wiggins, combined to send the Lynx to a disappointing 13-21 finish, tied for the second-worst record in the league.
"It was hard for her when she first came back," Lynx assistant Jim Petersen said. "The amount of adulation that she got, the amount of attention that was demanded of her, and then us not having a lot of success, that was hard for her."
Kathy Whalen could see the frustration in Lindsay's face every time they sat down for dinner.
"Last year I guess was a disappointment just because there was so much hype and pressure on her to do well in her first year back," Kathy Whalen said. "Because that didn't pan out, I know she was really disappointed. So then we were disappointed. This is so much more of what we expected."
Augustus and Wiggins are healthy, giving Whalen two top-flight athletes on the perimeter to feed the ball to. Moore has been as good as advertised and Rebekkah Brunson has emerged as a force in the paint. The Lynx also added Whalen's former teammate, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, for some more veteran leadership.
"Last year just kind of got off to a rocky start," Lindsay Whalen said. "No one really anticipated it. Things happened last year, whether it was injuries, I got off to a slow start and wasn't playing my best. This year I've felt really comfortable with coach's system and everyone around me and as a point guard, when you're doing that, it makes it easy."
Or, at least, Whalen makes it look that way. She's big enough to overpower smaller guards and quick enough to get to the rim at will.
A quick look at the stat sheet shows four Lynx players averaging between 10 and 16 points, a testament to Whalen's ability to get everyone involved.
"It's just fun to watch," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. "She's strong, she's physically tough, she's mentally tough and she just makes our team go. How she goes is how we go."
With Whalen at the trigger, the Lynx (27-7) bulldozed through the regular season. They set a franchise record for victories and finished six games better than the next best team in the league.
The Sun used that No. 1 pick on UConn star Tina Charles, who is an MVP candidate herself, and Montgomery made the Eastern Conference All-Star team this year. But Griffith wouldn't hesitate to do the deal all over again.
"You could start to see it coming as last year moved along," Griffith said. "With an offseason to let it all sink in, she came out of the gates firing on all cylinders and is probably having the best season of her career.
"Hands down, she is the floor leader and the team leader. We wouldn't be where we are without her."