As a player who thrives on a command of the subtleties of her position, Minnesota Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen rarely makes the spectacular play that captures the attention of the average WNBA fan.
And even when she does pull off the spectacular - as she did with a game-winning shot in the Lynx's 70-69 win over the San Antonio Silver Stars on Sunday - it's still her ability to put together a string of simple plays that make her among the best point guards the game has seen.
With the Lynx down 9 points with 1:46 left in the third quarter and the Silver Stars seemingly gaining some home momentum, Whalen got four of her career-high 19 field goal attempts and then some to close the quarter.
Whalen ended the Silver Stars' 8-0 run with a jumper. After a solid defensive possession by the Lynx, Whalen came back on their next offensive possession with a driving one-footer off the glass plus a missed free throw opportunity. The next trip down, she made a simple pass to Taj McWilliams-Franklin for another bucket. Then she capped it off by contributing to the Lynx scoring off Silver Stars turnovers on consecutive possessions: leaking out on the first (after falling down and being out of position) to be on the receiving end of a fast break layup and then intercepting a Danielle Robinson pass in traffic and setting up Rebekkah Brunson for a fast break layup.
By the time the third quarter came to an end, the Lynx were up one point after a 10-0 run, during which Whalen was responsible for every single point during. There was nothing that stood out as particularly "dominant" about Whalen's end of quarter performance to the point that it was easy to miss that she almost single-handedly carried the team back into the game. Yet in making otherwise mundane plays, she demonstrated the same strong instincts that she showed on the game-winning shot to get the win.
Confining Whalen to the "pure point guard" box never quite seems appropriate - at her best, what separates her from most other point guards is her ability to make plays efficiently all over the court and subtly take hold of the flow of a game to nudge it in a direction that best suits her team without hogging the spotlight. It's why she's an ideal fit for Minnesota, but also part of why she led the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals in her first two seasons as a pro.
When Whalen is at her best, it's not at all that she fits the mold of what we might imagine as a "pure point guard" but instead a great basketball player who seems to have a superior game awareness relative to others who might be faster, flashier, or more outwardly ebullient. So what people might underestimate about Whalen is that she often seems to be in the right place at the right time and in the right frame of mind to take advantage of the opportunity.
And so the quintessential Whalen play was none of the plays described above, but a far simpler play with just under 9 minutes left in the third quarter where Whalen grabbed a defensive rebound, turned and brought the ball upcourt at a medium pace, recognized Taj McWilliams-Franklin open within her shooting range, and simply got the ball to her for an easy jumper.
Nothing special, totally unremarkable, and yet the absolutely perfect play.
There aren't many point guards in the game who are able to affect the game in as many ways as Whalen even if we could find better defenders, passers, or scorers. Against the Silver Stars, she hit about her average with a 6.66 pure point rating, almost exactly her average rate with 2.50 points per empty possessions - decision making categories that she leads all point guards in - as well as her average free throw rate. But to maintain average efficiency like that as a point guard with a usage percentage well above her average at 36.6% is actually pretty remarkable - for a guard who has a usage percentage of 21.20% for the season, you might expect that her efficiency would suffer as she took on more responsibility for the offense.
Instead, she had her best game of the season while maintaining about normal efficiency, while having a 24.24% defensive rebounding percentage.
She's decisive even in moments of deference and has the ability to disorient opposing defenses simply by the way she changes pace and works angles while bringing the ball upcourt.
Whalen has mastered the art of what all great point guards share - keeping defenses off balance while maintaining a sensitivity to her own team's balance. So far this season, there are few players who have done that better than Lindsay Whalen.
Part 2: WNBA mid-season top 5 point guard rankings
2010 WNBA Point Guard Rankings (with explanations of those stats above)