September 23, 2020 

Cool, calm, collected Collier key for Lynx success

The Minnesota Lynx will need to match Napheesa Collier's unfazed demeanor and play to challenge the Seattle Storm in the semifinals

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PALMETTO, FL- SEPTEMBER 22: Napheesa Collier #24 of the Minnesota Lynx shoots the ball against the Seattle Storm during Game 1 of the Semifinals of the WNBA Playoffs on September 22, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo credit: Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

During Tuesday’s shootaround availability, reporters fished for anything that would suggest Napheesa Collier and the Lynx were thrown off by Sunday’s Game 1 postponement.

Was her adrenaline thrown off when the game was postponed half an hour before tip? Would her team be rusty with extra rest? Did she feel safe playing after Seattle received inconclusive COVID-19 tests?

But once again, nothing cracked Collier.

“We can’t control what’s going on with other teams, what the league is deciding,” Collier said. “We can only control what goes on our team and with ourselves.”

Aside from a joke that her dog Luna had been worried for Collier’s sake, it was business as usual. No complaints, no worries, no excuses, just an eagerness to begin her first WNBA semifinals playoff series.

And when Game 1 finally came, Collier remained collected, to say the least.

The second-year player finished her third career playoff game with a game-high 25 points (tied with Seattle’s Jewell Loyd), nine rebounds, three assists, and six blocks — a stat line only Lisa Leslie has matched in the playoffs.

Seattle began the game sagging off on Collier when the Lynx forward was planted outside the arc. Collier responded by shooting 4-for-5 from 3-point range while still bringing her dynamic craftiness into the paint.

“Coming into the playoffs I knew that when I passed up shots it hurts the team,” Collier said. “When anyone does that, it hurts the team.”

But Collier isn’t a player who’ll yell at her teammates for passing up shots. She has taken on a larger vocal leadership role during Sylvia Fowles’ on-court absence, but her communication — as far as I can tell through a screen — is limited to directing teammates through defensive rotations or reminding teammates to shake off a mistake. Take Damiris Dantas’ late foul on Natasha Howard for example.

Dantas was visibly frustrated after Howard swiped a defensive rebound from her and converted the steal into a trip to the free-throw line. Howard’s free throws would give Seattle a one-point lead with one minute, 39 seconds remaining in the game. Instead of complaining to the referees or bashing her teammate, Collier walked over to Dantas, met her with a high-five, and what appeared to be words of encouragement.

Less than a minute later, Dantas tied the game at 84-84 by draining a corner three with five seconds remaining on the shot clock. Of course, Collier can’t receive all of the credit for Dantas’ quick recovery, but bouncing back as quickly as Dantas did may have been more of a challenge if not for the leadership style Collier has assumed.

Collier improved her game and encouraged her teammates to follow her lead all while matching up with 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart. But going up against one of the best players in the league didn’t faze Collier because, despite her inexperience in the league, Collier knows that she too is one of the best players in the league.

Collier’s awareness of her greatness is what keeps her from getting too emotional about recording consecutive blocks on Stewart. Instead, the heady defensive plays were followed by a few high-fives shared with her teammates and a slight raise of her eyebrows.

Collier knows a team like Seattle doesn’t allow for celebrations until the final buzzer sounds.

“They’re really good at scoring off the third, fourth, fifth option,” said Collier after Saturday’s practice. “So when we stop their first couple looks, we have to make sure we’re staying in it and defending all the way through the shot clock.”

Unfortunately for the Lynx, they were reminded of that lesson on Tuesday when Alysha Clark rebounded a missed Sami Whitcomb layup and connected on the put-back to seal Seattle’s 88-86 Game 1 victory just before the clock ran out.

The Lynx only committed 10 turnovers on Tuesday — a significant improvement from the 26 they recorded in their final regular-season game against Seattle. They committed fewer fouls than Seattle, responded well to Seattle’s limited runs, and played with the type of defensive intensity needed to compete with a team as deep as Seattle. But they still lost.

To play that well and still come up short may be debilitating for some, but that won’t be the case for Minnesota if Collier can help it.

There were no “should’ve,” “would’ve,” “could’ves” in Collier’s postgame media availability, but there was no sense of contentment, either. Collier only showed an eagerness for Game 2.

“It feels good going into the next game being like we have that confidence,” Collier said. “We were right there the whole time. We were ahead at some points. So I think we’re excited for the next game.”

“In order for Phee to be successful, she’ll have to find even more ways to get it done,” Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve said. “But she’s got such a will about her, such an agility about her. If she plays like that, we have a chance.”

The Lynx followed Collier’s lead in Game 1 and held their own against Seattle. If they continue to play as their best player does, coming close to beating Seattle won’t be their greatest achievement of this series.

Written by Katie Davidson

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