Thursday’s playoff game with Phoenix was barely six minutes old and the Lynx were already in a 12-point hole.
Slow starts were common for the Lynx during the 22-game regular season at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. But so were comebacks. Down 21-9 in a single-elimination game, the Lynx came back, and Napheesa Collier started it.
She rebounded Crystal Dangerfield’s missed 18-footer and scored. Over the final four minutes of the quarter the Lynx went on a 14-3 run that made it a one-point game entering the second. Collier scored, had two assists and a couple of rebounds in the run, setting up a back-and-forth game that wasn’t over until a missed Phoenix shot at the buzzer gave the Lynx a one-point win, putting them into a best-of-five semifinal series with Seattle that starts Sunday.
Statistically, it was not an impressive game for Collier. She took six shots, made two, scored seven points. It was only the fourth time this season she failed to score in double figures, and it was her season low in points and shots taken thanks to a Phoenix team determined not to let her beat them.
“If you watch the film, [Phoenix forward] Brianna Turner was on Collier,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said, referencing one of the better post defenders in the league. “If she wasn’t on Collier, she was doubling down. They were all in on Napheesa Collier not beating them. That’s playoff basketball.”
But Collier, as always, did other things. She led the team with six assists and nine rebounds. She had the team’s only block. Phoenix doubling on her freed Damiris Dantas to score 22 points.
And Reeve was OK with all that. “She had to make her own breaks on the glass to make shots,” Reeve said. “Phee won’t sit there and force up shots. We need her to trust her teammates. That’s what she did against Phoenix.”
It’s Collier’s time
Collier understands all of this. But if the Lynx have a chance at upsetting the Storm, Collier will have to do more than she did in two losses to Seattle this year, when she scored 21 points in two games on 8-for-21 shooting, making just one of five three-pointers.
It won’t be easy. Collier has been the focal point of other team’s defensive schemes pretty much from the start, especially after center Sylvia Fowles was lost with a calf injury. In the process she crafted a second WNBA season that is extraordinary, if not necessarily gaudy.
After winning WNBA rookie of the year honors in 2019, Collier in her second season averaged 16.1 points, 9.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.3 blocks. She shot 52.3% overall, 40.8% on threes. She finished 12th in the league in scoring, 19th in assists, ninth in shooting percentage, third in steals, third in rebounds, sixth in blocks and first in minutes played.
She is a team player, and she knows not to force things. But simply taking what the defense gives her won’t be enough if the Lynx are going to compete with the Storm.
“That’s the beauty about the playoffs,” said Collier, about to enter her first playoff series after playing single-elimination games last year and Thursday. “Everyone has to go to a new level. I’ll have to step it up and play better than I have all season.”
The Lynx wouldn’t be where they are without Dantas taking a step up, without Dangerfield coming out of the second round of the draft to win rookie of the year, without an unselfish roster that produced six players who scored at least 25 points a game in a season in which the Lynx rallied from 10 or more down to win seven times.
But they won’t advance without Collier asserting herself.
“Defenses aren’t going to give you a lot,” she said. “I think being aggressive is going to be important.”
That doesn’t mean forcing things. The Storm has an athletic, deep roster that specializes in making it difficult for opponents to move the ball from side to side. Collier knows that, having committed six turnovers in the Lynx’s first loss to Seattle early in the season. She can’t force her way into double coverage or force passes.
But what she can do is take perimeter shots when they’re open, something she still sometimes fails to do.
“It’s not what I’m obviously most comfortable with,” Collier said. “But I know that If I’m going to help the team, to space the floor and do what we want to get done on offense, I’ll have to shoot it when I’m open. Not be hesitant. And that’s the mind-set I’m coming in with.”
If Collier can do that, it would open lanes to the basket.
She appears ready. After Minnesota’s second loss to the Storm this season Collier talked about her frustration with the fact Seattle hadn’t seen the Lynx’s best game yet. Saturday she talked about that again. She’s happy for another chance.
“The way we played as a team isn’t what we showed during the year and isn’t our best,” she said. “I’m excited to go out and play the game we know how to play.”