NEW YORK – Sunday’s contest at Madison Square Garden was a rare one to forget for Sylvia Fowles. She had maybe her worst game of the entire season, scoring just seven points in 39 minutes and committing five turnovers as Minnesota lost to New York.
Fowles was double-teamed almost every time she touched the ball, and she struggled to produce against a Liberty team that is very stout defensively. Sunday’s game, however, represents an outlier during an incredible season for the veteran center and her league-leading Lynx.
Unless she plays like that every night the rest of the way, Fowles will likely be named WNBA MVP.
As of Sunday, Fowles leads the league in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Win Shares, true shooting percentage, offensive rating and defensive rating, to name a few. She is among the WNBA’s top five in points (19.9 per game), rebounds (10.3), blocks (2.1) and shooting percentage (66.6%), while leading the Lynx in all those categories. She was the Western Conference Player of the Month in May, June and July.
“Every game, you know what she’s capable of,” Lynx teammate Maya Moore said on Sunday. “Just watching her get Finals MVP in 2015, you know what she’s capable of. But it’s been awesome to see the consistency. That’s something that she prides herself on, to be consistent for her team. So as the season went on, we just got more and more excited and wanted to let her know that we have her back no matter what.”
Fowles has indeed won a Finals MVP and many other individual awards – she’s a three-time Defensive Player of the Year – but never garnered the most prestigious honor of them all. Moore, on the other hand, is a former MVP and considered by many to be the most talented player in the league today.
She also happens to be the most enthusiastic about her teammate’s MVP-caliber season.
Moore is 28, in the prime of her career, and her own numbers are down. She’s averaging 16.8 points – her fewest since 2012 – and shooting 43 percent from the floor. She attempts about five fewer shots per game than she did in her MVP season in 2014. Moore had been Minnesota’s leading scorer each of the past four years.
But at the end of the day, her lone goal is to win championships. And that is the case for all eight players on Minnesota’s roster who were All-Stars at some point in their careers.
“Everybody has been supportive. I think that’s the beauty of our team,” Fowles said on Sunday. “I think that’s why we’re so successful, because nobody is selfish. When you’re hot, you’re hot. And when someone is hot, our team utilizes that person to her fullest. Everybody has been supportive, but especially Maya. She tells me to just keep going, keep pushing forward. When I’m not having a good day, she makes sure she’s talking me through it.
“I don’t think it’s within her gut to want to be selfish. When a certain player is having a good season, we make sure we try to thrive off that. She’s been very supportive in that way.”
Moore has played with All-Star teammates ever since joining the Lynx in 2011. Had she been drafted by a different team, she might have more than one MVP by now. Instead, she has three championships in six years. Sacrificing individual glory for team success isn’t exactly new to Moore.
But she’s never had a teammate this dominant.
In fact, Fowles is on pace for one of the greatest individual seasons in WNBA history. As of Sunday, her PER ranks behind only those of Lauren Jackson in 2006 and 2007. Her 66.6 percent shooting is within reach of the best percentage of all time. And by slightly bumping up her scoring average in the next two weeks, Fowles would finish with the third 20-10 season in league history.
Fowles is getting more paint touches this year as part of Minnesota’s revamped offense. The double teams and constant attention create more openings for others. Thus, while Moore isn’t shooting particularly well this season, those openings will still be there come playoff time.
“It makes everybody’s life easier,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “Prior to Syl being so dominant, players didn’t leave Maya. Defenders didn’t leave Maya open. She has found herself more open this season than probably any other season that she’s had as a Lynx player. I suspect that she is more than on board with Syl’s success.”
To find a similar situation, look no further than the defending champion L.A. Sparks. With two-time MVP Candace Parker on the roster, few could have predicted Nneka Ogwumike emerging the way she did last season. After Ogwumike won the regular-season MVP, Parker earned Finals MVP as the Sparks topped Minnesota in five games.
Like the Sparks, Minnesota has several players that could emerge as MVP of a given playoff run.
“You always want everybody playing at their max, everybody playing at their peak,” Moore said. “When everybody’s committed to that, you see great things with people rising to the occasion. It’s a really fun way to play.”
If the Lynx are to accomplish their goal and recapture the title after last year’s heartbreak, much of the credit will rightfully go to Fowles. In her 10th season, she has been as dominant a center as the WNBA has ever seen. Her improvement only enhanced a lineup that already had arguably the most talent in the league.
But it will also be because of the Lynx’s unselfish mindset, their willingness to share the spotlight and sacrifice for each other. And that all starts with Moore.