MINNEAPOLIS -- This season, we've seen some looks from Maya Moore that are pretty unusual for her: disappointment, irritation and even a little bafflement. When you win to the absurd amount that Moore has, some of the struggles she and the Minnesota Lynx have had thus far are unfamiliar and unfriendly territory.
Yet on Saturday, Moore came out where she typically does: on top. Team Candace Parker beat Team Elena Delle Donne 119-112, with Moore winning WNBA All-Star Game MVP honors for the third time in a row, finishing with 18 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists.
That brought the beaming smile and satisfied grins we are used to from Moore, who is now the All-Star Game's all-time leading scorer and tied former Sparks great Lisa Leslie with a third MVP. Sure, it was just an exhibition, a reprieve from a crazy competitive WNBA season in which everyone is slugging it out.
But it was still special. In front of her home crowd at Target Center, the fans who've watched her grow from college sensation to pro superstar, Moore got to celebrate a triumph for her franchise and her league. Hosting the All-Star Game means more responsibility but a nice payoff.
"It's worth it, I think, for the experience that our fans get to have," Moore said with another shiny silver MVP trophy sitting in front of her. "And to cap it off today with a really entertaining day, a fun day, I think you could see it on all of our faces: We had a good time."
Since Moore was drafted No. 1 in 2011, the Lynx and their fans have had a lot of those, winning four championships and making the WNBA Finals two other times. This year has been more challenging, though. The Lynx are 15-10, at one point losing four games in row, and even had a home loss to the league's last-place team, Indiana.
After falling at home to Connecticut 83-64 on July 15, Moore was unusually terse. She was 2-of-11 from the field that day, part of what have been season-long shooting concerns. Two days later, she opted not to be captain of the All-Star team, despite earning that right as the leading vote-getter.
Moore said she just had too much to do with Minnesota being the All-Star host to be a captain. But one couldn't help but wonder if it was more about her not wanting to focus on anything except the struggles she and the Lynx were having and figuring out an answer for them.
The Minnesota fans, who adore Moore, accepted her bypassing the captaincy, even though it meant that the Sparks' Parker -- usually a villain in these parts because of Los Angeles' epic battles with the Lynx the past two years in the WNBA Finals -- would be captain and pick a team under the new format this season.
The Lynx then won their next three games before the All-Star Game, including a season-high, 38-point performance from Moore on July 21 at Phoenix.
Those wins helped move the Lynx into third place, and the all-important bye into the semifinals -- awarded to the top two teams -- is very much in reach. Moore still isn't shooting the ball like she wants to; she currently has career-low percentages from the field (40.3) and from 3-point range (32.4). But even though Saturday didn't count in the standings, it counted for positive energy. It mattered to Moore to have a day such as this in front of her fans, and it mattered to them, too.
"As someone who played an All-Star Game in front of her home fans, it is nice to perform well," said Team Delle Donne's Sue Bird, whose Seattle Storm hosted the game last year. "Because you're getting all this love, and you want to make sure you are giving it back. There's no pressure -- it's an All-Star Game -- but to perform well, get the MVP, I'm sure that felt good for Maya. When she hoisted the trophy, you could feel everybody in the stands being excited for her."
It also says a lot about how consistently great Moore has been that she won another All-Star MVP -- she also won in 2015 and '17; there was no game in 2016 because of the Olympics -- while there is so much competition from players of all ages.
The only rookie in this All-Star Game, Las Vegas' A'ja Wilson, had 18 points for Team Delle Donne and is fulfilling her promise as a No. 1 draft pick.
"It was a lot of fun going out and playing the game we love," said Wilson, whose Aces were announced Saturday as host to next year's All-Star Game in Vegas. "It was interesting having conversations with people and hearing different aspects of the game and about life from Sue or Diana [Taurasi] or Sylvia [Fowles]. That's really what I enjoyed the most."
Washington's Kristi Toliver led Team Delle Donne with 23 points.
Allie Quigley, the 3-point shooting contest winner for the second year in a row, had 18 to match Moore on Team Parker, which also got an MVP-caliber performance from Dallas' Skylar Diggins-Smith. She finished with 17 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists, which tied Bird for most Saturday.
The Wings are in sixth place in the WNBA at 14-11 and hope to make a strong push toward the playoffs behind Diggins-Smith and center Liz Cambage, who dunked at the end of the All-Star Game and scored a WNBA single-game record 53 points earlier this month.
"We have to win by any means necessary," Diggins-Smith said of the Wings. "A lot of these games are coming down to little things. And we're back at it. We have practice tomorrow."
That grind to the finish will resume with three games Tuesday. The regular season ends Aug. 19. For Moore and the Lynx, next is a trip to Los Angeles to play the archrival Sparks on Thursday (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET). That's followed the next night by a meeting in Seattle with the first-place Storm and then a game back in Minneapolis on Sunday against the hottest team in the league, Atlanta, which has won eight in a row.
Every game from here on out is crucial, but those three in a four-day stretch will say a lot about where the Lynx are. It's more of what has been a pressure-cooker season for the defending champs, as well as everyone else hoping to contend.
Moore said that competition is great for the game but added with a laugh that it takes its toll on the players, coaches and their loved ones.
"It's just very stressful for anyone who's invested in us as people," she said. "These games, they're devastating because we're all picking up our intensity. And so each game feels so ... it feels like a playoff game."
The All-Star Game, of course, didn't feel that way. It was more a time of smiles and sisterhood, of fans appreciating all and booing none, of the sport's best putting on a show and knowing it left everyone happy.
"The turnout was beautiful to look around," Moore said. "It just felt good. I think people were just really excited to have it here at a fun time. Having four of us [Lynx players] was really special.
"So I just appreciate having my teammates around and all the people who have been making this place a special place as well."