- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Sure, Minnesota had some concerns about Lindsay Whalen. The wrap isn't on her shooting hand, but it's still a bit troublesome.
"Everybody has worries when your point guard has a sprained wrist," Minnesota Lynx teammate Seimone Augustus said. "It was great to see her come out and be aggressive and not show any fear, to see her playing as usual."
Whalen did indeed look like her normal self Thursday, and so did the Lynx. Those concerns about Minnesota being too worn down by its first-round series with Seattle? About Whalen's left-wrist issues? About Maya Moore's shooting struggles in the fourth quarter?
None of those things were any problem as the Lynx decisively beat the Los Angeles Sparks 94-77 Thursday in Game 1 of the WNBA's Western Conference finals.
"The first thing I told them was there were a lot of excuses that were built into this game that they could have signed onto. And they didn't," Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said of the Lynx, who lost here at Target Center just once during the regular season. "They were ready to play. I was impressed with our team today."
Whalen penetrated for two layups and hit a 16-foot jumper in the game's first four minutes. It was as if she were intent from the tip on setting the tone for the game: Wrist injury? What wrist injury?
Well, actually, Whalen said even she wasn't completely sure how she would respond when the game started. But she figured it out pretty quickly, and so did everybody else in the arena. Whalen was "on."
"Honestly, I just wanted to get out there and see how it felt," said Whalen, who finished with 12 points and three assists. "I haven't done a lot since Tuesday [when she injured it against Seattle]. I didn't want to force anything, but if the opportunity presented itself, I wanted to take it.
"I knew some of the things might not be there, but I wanted to be affective and help. I got a few shots to go at the start, and that was big, confidence-wise. Once you get in to the flow of the game, you don't really think about it. Sure, you know you're a little sore, but you just try to play your game."
Whalen's strong start did two important things: It energized the Lynx and their crowd, and it set the Sparks back on their heels.
"She came out of the gate really well, and that's what champions do," said Sparks point guard Kristi Toliver, who had 12 points but seemed out of sorts much of the game. "They played like champions today. We'll try to take something out of their playbook and do the same thing when we get home."
The Sparks might also want to review their own playbook. Candace Parker led L.A. with 25 points and 11 rebounds, but had that "we flunked everything" look on her face after the game.
As for what specifically went wrong for L.A. in the pivotal second quarter, when the Lynx outscored the Sparks 32-16 and took control, Parker said, "The main thing is our pick-and-roll coverage: It was horrible tonight. We didn't know what we were doing.
"We didn't know if we were switching, if we were getting out on the shooter, if we were containing penetration. And it ended up being none of that. We obviously need to go back to the drawing board and do a better job of guarding that."
However, another factor that worked against the Sparks all night wasn't necessarily about X's and O's, but heart and willpower.
"I think for three-fourths of the game, we just laid down and took it," Parker said of what she felt was the Sparks' lack of fight in the game.
As L.A. forward DeLisha Milton-Jones put it, "A lot of the plays tonight showed that our sense of urgency couldn't touch theirs."
Just about everything the Lynx hoped would happen Thursday did happen. Whalen got off to a good beginning. Reeve was able to work in subs even early on to keep the starters fresh. And the bench played well, led by Amber Harris -- who has battled mononucleosis -- with nine points.
The Lynx ran the aforementioned pick-and-roll successfully, and they also converted in transition. They effectively mixed up their defenses. They outrebounded the Sparks 37-25. Moore, who had not shot the ball well in the closing quarter of the last two games against Seattle, went 5-for-5 from the field in the final 10 minutes Thursday.
Asked if she had answered any questions with her performance, Moore just smiled and said, "I had no questions. I always play hard no matter what happens. I'm not going to get too high off of this game, and I'm not going to get too low from the previous series. I'm just going to try to stay consistent."
Moore led Minnesota with 20 points, and Augustus added 16. Rebekkah Brunson had a double-double -- her third in four playoff games -- with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
"She's a machine," Moore said of how much Brunson's rebounding has impacted Minnesota's postseason so far. "That's what she does."
In fact, there really wasn't much that Reeve asked from any of the Lynx that they didn't accomplish. Reeve, like Whalen, had not been entirely sure how much her point guard could do Thursday. But she wasn't surprised that Whalen came through.
"Everything you know about Lindsay is she is as tough as nails," Reeve said. "She is in a lot of pain. I was told that in the second day after [the injury] happened, which is today, the swelling would be at its peak.
"This is what I told her: I just love the courage she plays with, and she is such a good leader. You guys have seen her time and time again."
Indeed, there had to be many Minnesota Gophers fans in the crowd who recall the great game Whalen had to start the NCAA tournament her senior season of 2004, when she returned from a much more serious injury.
That year, Whalen suffered two broken bones in her right (shooting) hand on Feb. 12, and didn't play again until five weeks later in that NCAA opener in March, which was also here in Minneapolis and against a team from Los Angeles. Whalen had 31 points as the Gophers beat UCLA 92-81 that day and began their run to the Final Four.
In the state that seems the most connected to the term "Bunyanesque," Whalen has quite a few stories in her past that could be described that way. She kind of "aw-shucks-ed" it Thursday, as usual, but you could tell Whalen was relieved to have been able to contribute as much as she did in a game that was so key in re-establishing whatever mojo some felt the Lynx possibly had lost when they had to grind it out against Seattle.
"I think everybody just gets so much from Lindsay Whalen," Moore said. "She's one of those players that puts so much heart into everything, it's contagious. Whenever she's on the floor -- and when she makes big plays, putting her body on the line -- it just elevates everybody. I love playing with her. She wants me to go get her lunch tomorrow, I'll go get her lunch tomorrow."
Fatigue. Injured point guard. Loss of momentum. Minnesota could have bought into a big list of excuses and flopped Thursday. Instead, Lindsay Whalen set the tone from the opening tip.