McWilliams-Franklin: We Haven’t Won Anything Yet
‘Mama Taj’ reminds Lynx there is no reason to celebrate.
by Stephen Litel / @stephenlitel
The most experienced player on the Minnesota Lynx, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, believes playing the Phoenix Mercury in the Western Conference Finals was a perfect tune-up for the WNBA Finals, facing off against the Atlanta Dream While the two teams have very similar styles, they each, of course, have different strengths and weaknesses.
“I think Phoenix has an overall better starting five with their switch between DeWanna Bonner and Nakia Sanford,” said Taj McWilliams-Franklin. “If DeWanna is starting, their five is much better as far as scorers, but I think their transition and Atlanta’s is about the same. Playing against them, it helped us. Playing Phoenix, we now know and understand that when Coach says, ‘Atlanta is going to run more than Phoenix,’ we’re like, ‘Jeez, who runs more than Phoenix?’”
“Atlanta runs more than Phoenix,” continued McWilliams-Franklin. “Made baskets, missed baskets, they are always running, taking off and that’s what we have to be careful of. Gosh, there were times I didn’t even know the ball was up. I think Atlanta knows what they do well and they do it. They run in transition, they score off the dribble, they penetrate and kick, they get offensive rebounds and they do that really, really well.”
Minnesota won Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, but they did look a bit rusty, especially in the first half. Many of the Lynx players were also making their individual debuts on the league’s biggest stage and were, understandably, fighting some jitters. McWilliams-Franklin herself was fighting illness during the game, but was able to fight through to contribute as the team expects from the veteran.
“Remember, we haven’t played for a week,” said McWilliams-Franklin. “That’s the first thing. The second thing is we haven’t played anybody from the Eastern Conference in at least a month in a half and we haven’t played Atlanta since June. There’s a big difference in the Eastern and Western Conference styles of play and so, for us and them, the first quarter was just feeling out. They were making some big shots because they normally are athletic, get in there and finish some things. Harding hit some threes that she normally wouldn’t hit. The first half was just kind of feeling out, not letting them penetrate and we were giving up threes.”
After getting some of those jitters out from experiencing a crowd as big and amped up as there was for Game 1, Minnesota regrouped and regained the composure that got them to the Finals when in the locker room at halftime. As expected, the Atlanta Dream did the exact same thing, finding ways to calm down and play the game that got them there as well.
“In the second half, both us and them were like, ‘OK, now we can play,’ said McWilliams-Franklin. “Now you know you felt them out and it’s time to go. Everybody gets jitters when it’s a big game and as much as you try to play it down, there’s 15,000 fans cheering. That’s a big game. You can’t get a player ready for that. You can say, ‘There’s going to be a lot of media, a lot of fans, a lot of TV, friends calling you out of the woodwork,’ but you can’t know until you experience it. When you go out and you’re all hyper when you see all those fans, then you go out in the game and you don’t really know how to calm yourself down. I think that’s what happened at the beginning a little bit and getting to know the team again, getting to know ourselves, getting our chemistry back together and then in the second half we were able to relax and play the way we play. In the fourth quarter, we did what we do in the fourth quarter.”
The Minnesota Lynx have a knack for making in-game adjustments, coming out of the halftime locker room and looking like the dominant team they can be after some lackluster first halves, according to their own standards. McWilliams-Franklin is quite certain as to why they are able to adapt so well on the fly, especially after taking a punch from a team like Atlanta in the first half of Game 1.
“I think it all comes from Lindsay (Whalen),” said McWilliams-Franklin. “We might be down by nine or 10, we come in and Lindsay settles us down. She settles everybody down and says, ‘OK, we’re going to run this. We’re going to get this shot and if it’s not open, we’re going to get this shot.’ That’s a part of having a veteran point guard, who knows and says, ‘We’re going to do what we need to do to win.’ She says things like, ‘We’re going to win this game’ or ‘We’re going to run our stuff’ and we’re down by 10. We know we’re going to win when she says that, then goes down and gets a layup or gets that little reverse because it’s all about when she leads, everybody takes a deep breath and says, ‘Ah, it’s going to be OK.’ We get a rebound and she kicks it out for a long layup and now they’re thinking, ‘Uh oh, here come the Lynx.’ That’s what stabilizes everybody.”
Of course, McWilliams-Franklin and her Lynx teammates know part of Whalen’s on-court leadership is tied to the leadership that comes from the bench. Cheryl Reeve has her team prepared each and every night—probably over-prepared—and Whalen hammers those points home to her teammates when adversity strikes on the court.
“Cheryl (Reeve) has a knack from all the years of being an assistant coach,” said McWilliams-Franklin. “She has different ways roaming around from what she learned from this head coach or this head coach like Dan Hughes or Bill Laimbeer. Her thoughts about breaking down the other team is so in-depth that she tells you when they go this way, they’re going to do this. I mean, every move that Lindsey Harding made, Cheryl already told us she was going to make. That’s why you see her on the sidelines so angry because she’s like, ‘I told you! She’s going to cross over from right to left, then spin back and shoot!’ It’s because of the way her mind works, she breaks down everything to the smallest. If there’s any idea that they might do something, we already went over it, even if they only ran it one time this year. She knows that. She’ll say, ‘They ran this one time against this team and this is who they’re trying to get.’”
McWilliams-Franklin and the veterans, who don’t rely on athleticism alone, appreciate that preparation from their coach. By knowing everything that is going to happen before it actually does, their lives as basketball players are much easier. That ease in playing, even on such a big stage, allows McWilliams-Franklin to contribute more than “experts” believe she should be able to at her age. Those preparations—along with McWilliams-Franklin’s own lifestyle choices and leadership—have made her arguably the most invaluable player on the Minnesota Lynx.
“For a player like me, who looks at tape every day, who sees angles and all that, I love that because that’s how I think,” said McWilliams-Franklin. “I want a head coach who thinks like me. She’s the best at that. It makes her a top coach, it makes her the Coach of the Year and for me, even before Coach of the Year, the reason I came here was because of her. I know the mind that she has for her craft. We have a craft. We play basketball. She has a craft. She coaches, she believes in that and every moment she is thinking of ways to set up something.”
“That’s what I love about her and, for a player like me since I’m older, I need to know Armintie Price is always dribbling with her right, but she crosses over to her left,” continues McWilliams-Franklin. “I need to know that because I’m playing her and I’m slow. I know I have to cut this off, but I also know I have to be prepared because most coaches will say, ‘Keep her left. Keep her left. Keep her left.’ Coach Reeve is like, ‘Keep her left, but know that she’s going to shoot with her right hand on the left side, so you can block it.’ I got a block tonight because of that. I remembered what she told me. That’s how her head and that clock inside work. It’s always ticking and I’m sure she’s in there in her office writing and thinking of stuff right now.”
While “Mama Taj” and the rest of the Lynx veterans know they had immense value in getting the Lynx to the Finals, they are also well aware that they need to continue to lead now more than ever. Quite possibly, the most difficult portion of their job is now: reminding the younger players that they haven’t won anything yet.
“Once again, Coach Reeve comes into play to and reminds them it’s only one game,” said McWilliams-Franklin. “Enjoy it for an hour. The vets were like, ‘An hour? We’ve already forgotten it, haven’t we?’ The younger players are like, ‘Only an hour?’ They wanted to cheer about it and talk about it all night. I said, ‘I’ve already forgotten about it because we’re moving on to Wednesday.’ It’s 0-0 to Lindsay, Rebekkah (Brunson) and me. That helps because we’re not excited about one win in Game 1. There isn’t anything to be excited about because if we lose Game 2, then we’re back where we were. For us to keep an edge, you have to continue to let them know that game is over. It was a nice win for the fans, but it’s over. On to the next game. That’s how we help and where we have immense value.
“When I walked off the court, I was done with that game and thinking about Wednesday,” continues McWilliams-Franklin. “How are they going to change what they’re going to do? Lindsay and I both said in the next game they’re not going to switch as much as they did in Game 1 and we’re going to have to change some things. Coach came in and said, ‘We’re going to have to tweak some things because I saw some things out there that they’re going to change.’ That’s how it should be.”
There is no question the Atlanta Dream will throw everything they have at the Minnesota Lynx tonight in Game 2 of the WNBA Finals. There is also no doubt that with leaders such as Taj McWilliams-Franklin the Minnesota Lynx will be ready.