Sue Bird defends Lindsay Whalen. (Neil Enns/Storm Photos)

Battle at the Point: Bird and Whalen

Kevin Pelton, | Sept. 28, 2012

With six No. 1 overall picks and five Olympians on the respective rosters of the last two WNBA champions, the matchup between the Minnesota Lynx and Seattle Storm doesn't lack for star power. There are multiple intriguing matchups, but none better than the one at point guard, which features arguably the top two players at the position in the WNBA - the Storm's Sue Bird and the Lynx's Lindsay Whalen.

"It's a tough matchup," said Bird. "It's a fun matchup. I think we're kind of similar in some ways and different in others. At the core, though, we're both point guards who lead our teams and basically try to do whatever we can to help our teams be successful."

Both have done plenty to help their teams. Bird's Storm and Whalen's teams, first in Connecticut and now in Minnesota, have been consistently successful since Whalen entered the league in 2004. That year, the Storm defeated the Sun and a rookie Whalen in the WNBA Finals.

Lindsay Whalen defends Sue Bird.
Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images

Teammates during the Olympics, Bird and Whalen have been squaring off since 2004.

2004 was the last time Bird and Whalen met in the postseason, but their paths have intersected repeatedly since then - most notably with USA Basketball. During the 2010 FIBA World Championship and this year's Olympics, Whalen served as Bird's backup for undefeated teams.

In general, Bird and Whalen share a common profile. They're both part of a generation of point guards that has redefined how the WNBA views the position. While predecessors like Ticha Penicheiro were expected to pass first and shoot later, Bird and Whalen demonstrated that point guards could be dangerous as scorers without shirking their playmaking duties.

Dig deeper, however, and Bird and Whalen have very different styles that rely on their unique characteristics.

"They're very similar in the bigger picture," said Storm forward Katie Smith. "The way they get it done is a little bit different. They're different people with different bodies. They use their strengths to their advantage. Whalen is a more physical guard. She'll bang and body and doesn't mind a lot of contact driving to the hole. Birdy's a jump shooter, three-point ball, smooth."

"They're similar from the standpoint that they really do a good job of running the team," concurred Head Coach Brian Agler. "They're similar that way. They're similar from the standpoint that they're very experienced. They're different in terms of how they play the game. Lindsay's more of a powerful guard, drives to the rim. Very good shooter, very good distributor. Sue is more a jump shooter, three-point shooter, more a finesse player. "

The two approaches both have their merits. While Bird has made four All-WNBA First Teams, Whalen has made two. (San Antonio's Becky Hammon, with Bird, is the only other point guard to make it since Bird entered the league in 2002.) Bird has led the league in assists twice; Whalen won her third assist title this season, beating Bird by some two assists in a race that wasn't decided until the final day of the season.

That performance has been recognized by USA Basketball. Bird has been a fixture as part of three Olympic teams that won gold medals, the last two as a starter. Whalen is a more recent addition to the USA Basketball program who strengthened the team at point guard. Head Coach Geno Auriemma was even able to use the two players together at times, giving the USA a pair of elite playmakers.

"What started out as respect I would now call friendship. She's really cool and we had a lot of fun at the Olympics."
- Bird

Playing together helped Bird get to know Whalen better.

"I think there's a lot of respect there," she said. "I think now that I've played with Lindsay for USA Basketball in 2010 and this year at the Olympics, having to guard each other every day in practice, she's someone who I spent a lot of time with. What started out as respect I would now call friendship. She's really cool and we had a lot of fun at the Olympics, joking around."

Over the next week, Bird and Whalen will be back to competitors. And, though they won't always match up - Minnesota will often put a bigger defender on Bird - the series could hinge on the performance of these two similar but different point guards.

"Both are very important," said Agler. "When they play well, their team usually plays well."

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