By Jon Krawczynski
AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — This is always the way it was supposed to be for Maya Moore.
She was a star in high school and the most decorated college player to ever hit the court. She was the unanimous No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, a franchise-changing talent who could draw more than just hard-core fans to the arena to see her play.
Moore and the Minnesota Lynx won a title in her first season and reached the finals again in her second season, an incredibly successful start by any measure. For those expecting Moore to take the league by storm and dominate from the start, they had to wait a bit. Three years, to be exact.
Now in her third season, Moore has taken over. More comfortable with her teammates, her competition and her status as a veteran in the league, she led the Lynx to the best record in the WNBA for the third straight season.
"Every year that I'm here I take on more and more as far as expectations, the poise I play with and the trust that my teammates have in me," Moore said. "I think as a culture of our team, we want to be able to have a lot of trust in each other no matter how old you are or how many years you've been playing. But especially this year. I've had my first two years under my belt. The core group being here has given me a comfort that has allowed me to play more like a veteran."
She is averaging career highs in points (18.5), rebounds (6.2) and shooting percentage (.509). She was named Western Conference player of the month in August and September and also became the first player in league history to finish first in 3-point percentage (.453) and 3-pointers made (72). To put that in perspective, only two NBA players have ever done that.
Moore just missed out on the WNBA's MVP award, finishing second to Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker in one of the closest votes in league history, according to a person familiar with the situation who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because no official announcement has been made.
Moore's all-around brilliance has the Lynx steamrolling into the playoffs — they open the Western Conference semifinals at home on Friday against Seattle — gunning for their third straight finals appearance. In a season that was supposed to be dominated by the fresh faces like Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins, the veteran Lynx once again proved to be the best team in the league.
Moore's blossoming has accompanied a career year from point guard Lindsay Whalen, another stellar season from All-Star guard Seimone Augustus and the hard-nosed play of Rebekkah Brunson to make the Lynx the team to beat.
"Every year we've come in as the No. 1 seed so this is nothing new," Moore said. "We know that every team is going to bring their best against us because all they've been hearing for the whole season, especially this past week, is how good we are. That can be a lot to motivate the teams that we play and it can also be a way for us to take our eyes off of our prize by being comfortable with what we've done.
"I think our focus has been just making sure that we focus on the fact that nothing has been accomplished for us in the postseason."
After beating Atlanta to win the franchise's first championship in 2011, the Lynx were upset by Indiana last season in their bid to repeat. Coach Cheryl Reeve has said that the star-laden team may have lost a bit of its focus during that series.
"We've been the 1 seed. It's familiar. It's one of those things where I think every year I feel the same," Reeve said. "We want to make sure we're not that team that doesn't understand how hard it's going to be."
With Moore finding the magic that made her so dominant at UConn, the challenge of knocking off the Lynx got a whole lot tougher.
"She just has a really great understanding of what's being asked of her," Reeve said. "She responds quicker to mistakes as far as correcting things. She doesn't make the same mistakes that maybe she made as a younger player, has been far more efficient offensively."
Moore spent last offseason playing in China, expanding her brand and becoming a global face for a women's game that appears to be on the rise. WNBA games averaged 231,000 viewers on ESPN2, a 28 percent rise from last season and 20 percent larger audience than MLS games this season.
She also changed her diet, cutting out dairy, loading up on fruits and vegetables and eating several smaller meals instead of two big ones.
Most important, she's comfortable now. After deferring to her more experienced teammates for the first two seasons, Moore feels like one of them. And that has given her the freedom to take over. Just like she's always done.
"I put those expectations on myself as far as trying to be someone who comes in and pays like a vet," Moore said. "It's really just about poise and knowing what to expect and being mentally prepared for every practice and every game."