LOS ANGELES – Her latest heroics complete, Maya Moore sat in front of her locker and began to wrap her legs in plastic, securing ice bags across each of her ankles. She rose and joined teammate Lindsay Whalen and together they hobbled through the bowels of the Staples Center en route to another postgame press conference.
From there they would attempt to explain how, with their season on the brink, they dug deep to pull out an 85-79 win in Game 4 of the 2016 WNBA Finals, forcing a winner-take-all Game 5 in Minneapolis for a second straight year. But the image backstage in the House That Kobe Built said enough: Moore walking stiff-legged through the concourse, leaning on Whalen for support, and Whalen patting Moore on the back for a season saved.
The performance Moore delivered Sunday night was worthy of the Mamba himself, who took in the action from a courtside seat at the arena that served as the backdrop for many of his own heroics. This time, though, it was the alpha dog of the women’s game sinking L.A.’s title hopes with a historic effort.
31 points. 9-of-17 shooting. 9 rebounds. 5 assists. 3 blocks. 2 steals… in a game in which Minnesota’s quest for a repeat hung in the balance. In a game with next-to-zero margin for error, played in a tense championship environment, featuring five lead changes and seven ties – the last one with about six minutes left in the fourth quarter. “We needed every bit of what Maya did,” said Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve.
The 31 points surpassed her previous WNBA Finals high of 24, set during what was previously Maya’s signature game – Game 3 against Indiana last year, which Moore won on a buzzer-beating jump shot. The 31 points was also the seventh-highest individual scoring total in WNBA Finals history, tying recent Hall of Fame inductee Sheryl Swoopes’ 2000 game for the Houston Comets.
Top Scoring Games in WNBA Finals History
|Angel McCoughtry||ATL @ MIN||Oct. 5, 2011||38|
|Seimone Augustus||MIN vs. ATL||Oct. 5, 2011||36|
|Angel McCoughtry||ATL vs. SEA||Sept. 16, 2010||35|
|Angel McCoughtry||ATL at MIN||Oct. 2, 2011||33|
|Nykesha Sales||CON at SEA||Oct. 10, 2004||32|
|Penny Taylor||PHX at DET||Sept. 5, 2007||32|
|Maya Moore||MIN at LAS||Oct. 16, 2016||31|
|Sheryl Swoopes||HOU vs. NYL||Aug. 26, 2000||31|
Sparks head coach Brian Agler compared Moore to another Houston Comet legend after the game. “They’re not the same type of player, but she’s a lot like Cynthia Cooper from the standpoint that no matter what happens, they’re always on balance,” Agler said. “They’re always – they always have the ability to gather themselves and finish on balance. It doesn’t matter if she’s taking it to the rim or if she’s off the dribble.”
If they can muster a similar effort in Game 5, Moore and the Lynx can join those Comets with their fourth title. And she’s only 27.
These facts matter not to Moore, who approaches high-stakes games with blinders on. “The worst part is when we’re not playing,” she explained. “It’s, like, agony – especially after a loss. The night after is always hard.” Then the lights turn back on, and it’s: Forget what happened in the last game – or even the last play.
“She’s one of those players that can do multiple bad things in a row – she’ll turn it over on offense and she’ll miss something on defense – and with Maya you just never know when she’s screwing up, and that’s the greatest thing about Maya: She’s always in that next-play mode, and she believes at all times that she’s going to make the next play.”
It was fitting, then, that this vintage performance began with Maya missing her first five first-quarter shots. “Oh, I did?” she said when informed of that fact in front of her locker after the game. “I black out.” But after a deflating Game 4 loss in which she took only seven shots and scored nine points, Moore’s elimination-game aggression level showed from the outset.
She attempted seven shots in the first quarter alone, and even before the shots started falling – nine of her last 12 found the bottom of the net – had played tenacious defense and grabbed six rebounds. By the second quarter she was in full rhythm, cutting down the lane for back-to-back layups, then pump-faking past Nneka Ogwumike and leaning in for a runner for two more.
Less than two minutes into the third, she deflected an Essence Carson pass and took a feed from Sylvia Fowles for a fast break lay-in. Seven minutes after that, she dribbled around Fowles screens and sunk threes over Sparks center Jantel Lavender on back-to-back possessions.
Her four straight free throws in the game’s final eight seconds sealed the victory.
“I’m telling you, it’s a thing to watch,” said backup guard Renee Montgomery, who was also Moore’s teammate at UConn for three years. “It’s crazy when you play with someone for so long and I’m still amazed at the stuff she does.
“She carries the load. I knew she did well, but I didn’t even realize that she had 31. She was Maya. When Coach said she had 31, no one was surprised. Maya was Maya.”
What makes Maya, Maya? About two dozen media members sitting in the press conference room wanted to know on Sunday night. “Maya, what rattles you?” one asked.
“What rattles me?” she responded with eyebrows raised, pausing for 10 seconds.
“Heh. Ummm… Well… Sometimes I get rocked on screens. That rattles me a bit,” she finally said.
“No, I know what you’re saying,” she continued. “That’s the name of the game. You have to be able to just mentally lock in and let things go. You know, if you hold on to things too long you don’t have time to focus on what you need to do in the next play, in the next few possessions. The strength of our team and something I try to lead in is ‘next play, next play’ and not get rattled.
“But at the end of the day, I just want to leave it all out on the floor. No regrets. That’s probably when I feel the worst, if I feel like there was something left that I didn’t give or something that we didn’t quite do that we know we can do. That’s probably the worst feeling as an athlete: when you end a game and you know you could have been so much better. I guess that’s the best way I can answer that question.”
With that, she staggered off stage and stopped at a nearby trash can, Whalen and the team’s public relations official by her side. “I’ll catch up with you guys,” Moore told them. Finished with her nightly responsibilities, she began ripping off the plastic wrapped tightly around her legs, disposing of the shreds in the garbage. The last piece trashed, she removed the ice packs from her ankles, revealing reddened legs, and started the walk on to the team bus, on to the next game.