Cheryl Reeve didn’t plan to start rookie forward Napheesa Collier in her first game, at the beginning of the 2019 season. Collier made it into the lineup because of an injury and scored 27 points, the second most ever by a WNBA player in her debut.
Reeve didn’t plan on Collier becoming a star, thinking of her more as a well-rounded rotation player, but Collier became the rookie of the year in 2019 despite being the sixth pick in the draft.
Reeve didn’t plan on Collier being her best player in the Lynx’s latest trip to the WNBA semifinals, but when future Hall of Famer Sylvia Fowles had to miss another game because of a calf injury, the responsibility of playing like a franchise player fell to Collier, and again she exceeded reasonable expectations.
Tuesday night, in Game 1 of the WNBA semifinals, the Lynx lost to Seattle 88-86 on a last-second putback basket that negated a remarkable fourth-quarter performance by Collier and her team.
Down 72-63 starting the fourth quarter against the league’s most skilled team, Collier started the comeback with a three-point shot and dominated play until that last play. She finished with 25 points, nine rebounds and six blocks. According to the Twitter account Across The Timeline, Collier is the second player in league history to produce a 25-9-6 line in the playoffs.
At one point in the fourth quarter, Collier blocked Seattle star Breanna Stewart three times in quick succession.
In the biggest game of her career, Collier played like a superstar, a development that bodes well for the Lynx the rest of this series, and for the next decade.
“Yeah, she was again what we hoped for,” Reeve said. “When your best player performs like your best player, that gives your team a chance to be successful.
“What I liked was the variety of ways she was getting it done. Mixing in the three-balls, and we were getting her the ball inside, and she was creating her own plays at times. Phee was incredible.”
She made four of her five three-pointers and finished a beautiful step-through move against Stewart near the basket. She blocked shots without getting into foul trouble. She moved the ball beautifully.
Collier has it all, and you have to wonder if she has been underrated for so long because she rarely displays the ego of a star.
She might have been the best player on the court when playing what might be the best team in the league, but you wouldn’t have known that from her demeanor in the postgame interview.
She’s soft-spoken and polite. Even her blocks are polite — she doesn’t swat shots into the stands; she merely impedes their progress.
“Phee made big plays,” Reeve said. “Really, really big plays, coming over from the help side, even when she had Stewie one-on-one. She’s learned a lot defensively, I think. She’s bought into positioning and the idea of going airborne vertically.
“She’s outstanding at elevating and meeting you at your shot. Six blocks is obviously a lot. There were three in a little over a span of a minute. That was pretty exciting for us.”
Reeve said Fowles is “day-to-day,” but it’s unrealistic to think that if Fowles is able to play that she’ll be the dominant force she is when completely healthy.
Collier may need to dominate for the Lynx to advance. She hardly seems overwhelmed by the challenge.
“They made one more play than us,” Collier said. “I think we’re excited for the next game. I think it’s easy to get past. It’s a series. I think we played well. We’ll try to bottle the things that we did well.”
The Lynx will need more from rookie point guard Crystal Dangerfield, who turned in her second consecutive nervous first half of the playoffs.
They will need more offensively from Damiris Dantas, who made four of 14 shots and had the ball taken from her by Natasha Howard under the basket on a key play down the stretch.
Can they ask more from Collier?
Who doesn’t ask a lot from their star?