Minnesota Lynx superwoman forward Napheesa Collier made her return to the starting lineup on Sunday night in her 2022 WNBA season debut — just 10.5 weeks after giving birth (!!) to her daughter Mila on May 25 — to a triumphant welcome from the Target Center crowd.
PHEE IS BACK.— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) August 7, 2022
SHIMMY AND ALL pic.twitter.com/TZPTl7syna
How quickly she improved her condition is incredible given the mountains she’s had to move on her road to recovery from child birth, let alone working herself into good enough shape to play WNBA basketball. Collier returned to the team less than a month ago and was cleared to begin working out three weeks ago. The endlessly selfless work she put into her conditioning to make a return possible is truly astonishing and should absolutely be celebrated.
Collier’s return couldn’t have come at a more welcomed time for the Lynx. Minnesota was set to face the No. 7 seed Atlanta Dream without their second-leading scorer in guard Aerial Powers, who missed last night’s contest due to what the team is calling a left knee injury. Collier was initially ruled out on Saturday night, but Powers’ condition set in motion a change of plans.
“It was sort of sudden and it was Phee’s choice,” Lynx Head Coach and General Manager Cheryl Reeve said postgame, before explaining a call she placed to Collier yesterday afternoon. “When Powers was out, we kind of talked about it and said, ‘Hey do you want to stick to the plan (to play Wednesday in Phoenix), or do you want to play to today?’ [Collier] said, ‘Let me call you back.’ I think it was two minutes later, [she called back] and said, ‘I want to play!’”
Reeve added that hearing the excitement in Phee’s voice about returning to the court was enough to sell her on bringing the two-time WNBA All-Star back into the lineup.
“I was trying to weigh all my options and not just rush into it because obviously I really want to play, but I wanted to think about, too, you know, my body, am I ready?” Collier explained postgame. “I know that I am, and what was kind of holding me back was nerves. That’s not a good reason to not play, so I decided to do it. Like I said, I’m really happy that I did.”
One would think that hearing a deafening roar during introductions would help shake off some of the nerves Collier may have been feeling. Even from the tip, there was no doubt that simply Phee’s presence back in the lineup and on the floor did wonders for the confidence of her teammates, but also her head coach.
Right off the jump, Collier rotated perfectly on the back side of the defense to help force a stop — something that is not a given on this year’s Lynx team — and Moriah Jefferson paid it off with a confident 3 to open the scoring. An ultra confident Kayla McBride fed off of it by kickstarting her night with a decisive 3 of her own on the next trip down; that set the tone for a big night for the three-time All-Star, who was overjoyed to have Collier back.
“She’s a big part of who we are as a franchise and team. She’s out sister, you know? So to have her out there with us, it means a lot. I know it meant a lot for her the way the fans embraced her,” a giddy McBride said postgame. “[Ramping her up is] a process and we know that. We believe in Phee and what she brings to this franchise. It was just good to have her out there. Just put a big smile on my face for sure.”
Reeve said before the game that Collier would work in short spurts. Following suit, Collier checked out at the 7:07 mark of the first quarter with the Lynx leading 8-3, but she joined Sylvia Fowles on the bench, as Fowles had already picked up two quick fouls.
McBride, with that look in her eyes, put the pedal to the floor. The aptly nicknamed McBuckets then tacked on another five points to her tally to carry the load in the first quarter, and assisted on a pair of scores, too, all while holding rookie All-Star Rhyne Howard to three points on 1/5 shooting.
“I feel like the last couple of games, I’ve been a little bit like ebb and flow in my confidence and I don’t want to be like that. Especially at this point in the season. That’s not what coach expects of me,” McBride explained to Canis Hoopus postgame. “I know Coach has a lot of trust in me on the defensive end... defensively is where I really try to get my confidence from.”
The tone McBride set defensively carried them through some offensive rough patches while Fowles waited out foul trouble and Collier got her rest, and gave Minnesota a 20-16 lead after the first 10 minutes.
“That was probably one player that was really excited to have Phee on the court. I think she got a little something from that. And she also knew without Powers that she was going to be counted on,” Reeve told Canis Hoopus about McBride’s performance. “So her approach to the game was exactly what we needed.”
Her teammates took the baton from there. Collier scored her first points of the season on a 3 to extend the lead back to seven, and a trio of Rachel Banham scores secured Minnesota some needed breathing room.
Phee's first bucket of 2022 pic.twitter.com/pnjW9w2X37— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) August 7, 2022
(Watch it again to see McBride celebrate on the bench. You think she’s happy to have Phee back?)
The Lynx entered the half with a 41-36 lead, despite attempting zero free throws in the first half. Reeve was understandably upset with the officials at a missed block/charge call that sent Fowles to the bench with her third foul at the 3:17 mark, and was assessed a technical for making her feelings known.
However, Minnesota made up for it on defense. Atlanta shot 4/5 on second chance looks for eight points, and shot 9/27 (33%) on initial shots for 28 points — pretty stellar defense. But, when you couple the extra possessions with a pair of timely 3s from guard Aari McDonald, the Dream were within striking distance all while Howard struggled to find her form.
The All-Star wasn’t going to stay down; she came out firing, scoring more points (six) in the first 2:50 of the second half than she did in all of the first half (five). Dream guards Maya Caldwell and Erica Wheeler each added a 3 of their own as well to support Howard’s eight-point effort in the frame.
But in response, like they did to start the first half, McBride and Jefferson threw some haymakers, combining to score 14 of the team’s 19 points in the quarter. Jefferson’s aggression saved the game — and potentially the season — for the Lynx. The league leader in 3-point percentage (49.3%) confidently drained a trio of 3-pointers in a wonderful exhibition of searching for her shot, which wasn’t easy to find against an aggressive Dream perimeter defense.
“it was a hard game. She had to get away from people. We needed her to initiate offense and then come back and get it,” Reeve explained to Canis Hoopus, noting McDonald’s particularly strong ball screen defense. “I think for Moriah, her assertiveness, and shooting the ball, as we know.. [just] look at the games that you know that Moriah plays like this. Our team tends to be more successful when she’s assertive and she’s taking shots.”
“Just another crazy floor spacer when she’s able to knock down those shots. And even in her pull-ups, it just creates space because you have to pay attention to her. It opens things up for Syl, myself, Rachel, AP, everybody,” McBride told Canis Hoopus postgame.
“She’s really taken pride in who she is on on the perimeter. That’s not necessarily something she was known for her whole career but she really worked hard to become that, and you know, it’s showing all the work that she’s put in.”
In complementary and encouraging fashion, the Lynx held Atlanta to 21 points on 41% shooting in the quarter. That protected their lead — 60-57 — entering the fourth, before Jefferson and Collier — former National Championship winning teammates at UCONN — slammed the door shut.
After Howard got the Dream within one on the opening possession, Jefferson decided she had seen enough. The Lynx point guard stepped into and buried a mid-range jumper, then came out of nowhere to corral a long rebound before shooting out of a pack of Atlanta players like a cannon to find Banham in transition for a bucket — four monumental points created by confidence and hustle.
Collier’s burst off the dribble understandably isn’t 100% yet, so she had taken three triples to that point of the game. So, when she caught the ball on the next trip down in the left slot, she hit Cheyenne Parker — expecting a 3 — with a nasty pump fake that created the space for Collier to beat Parker off the dribble and finish through contact at the rim for an and-1 in traffic.
The crowd erupted.
Napheesa Collier gave birth 10.5 weeks ago and, somehow, is out here giving clutch buckets in the fourth quarter.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) August 8, 2022
Superwoman type stuff from the Lynx superstar pic.twitter.com/Yjox4Z5irS https://t.co/OsCpoKtEOO
McBride joined the party with a 3 on the next possession to cap off a 10-0 run that created a 70-59 Lynx lead. Minnesota never looked back and went on to 81-71, largely as a result of Collier’s calming presence down the stretch on both ends, and how that helped Jefferson and McBride.
“I think that’s now part of my game. I try to make sure that you know I’m moving on helping other people as much as I can,” Collier told Canis Hoopus postgame. “Just trying to keep the flow and especially, like I said, coming in this late in the season, just trying to make sure that when I’m on the floor that I’m doing something productive and I’m helping the team out.”
Reeve was pleased with Collier’s performance, especially in the fourth quarter. Phee finished with six points, two rebounds, an assist, a block and a steal across 21 minutes played.
“She gave us momentum, no question about it,” Reeve said, referencing her crucial 3-point play in the fourth quarter. “I think Phee does give players confidence with her on the court. Her energy and movement, it just creates easier things for other people. And then her length defensively is pretty helpful.”
The Lynx will desperately need that from Collier down the stretch of the season, as the team now sits just one game back of the No. 8 seed Phoenix Mercury with three games remaining, all against teams holding a top-eight seed. Fittingly, Minnesota will travel to the desert on Tuesday for a Wednesday night showdown with the Mercury.
“I think just each time she plays she’s just gonna get more comfortable,” Reeve said of her expectations for Collier in the next three games. “There’s a lot of plays she doesn’t know. I played her in two positions today, which wasn’t necessarily the plan, so she’s got she’s kind of gotta get up to speed [with] everything that we’re running. And then we also got to get to where we can feature her.”
That may be a lot to ask of Collier, but she’s confident she can handle whatever Reeve asks of her.
“I’m gonna play my role, give effort like I always do, and let the game kind of come to me and not force it, and help us to try to make a playoff push,” she said. “We’re all pushing towards that and that’s one of the reasons why we wanted to come out strong tonight because every game is do or die for us. So I’m gonna come in and do whatever coach asks me to do, whatever I need to do for the team to make that happen.”
If Collier can make it happen, it just may land the Lynx a playoff spot and a chance to send Fowles out with a ring.
Nearly a year after last taking the court together, Collier and her beloved Momma Syl took the court once again last night. Collier stated before the season, then still pregnant, that it was her goal to play with Fowles before the season’s end, and she achieved it.
“It was awesome,” Collier told Canis Hoopus about taking the floor with Fowles again. “It’s always so nice to play with Syl. She’s a huge presence, a Hall of Famer. So anytime she’s on the floor, obviously good things happen and it’s so cool to see greatness happening, especially for her last season.”
Fowles passed Brittney Griner for third place on the WNBA All-Time blocks list tonight.
“We’re making history doing this and I’m seeing history being made in what she’s doing. She wrote another record tonight with blocks. So it feels like every single game I’m just seeing something new, a new record that she’s breaking. So I’m just really happy to be witness to that.”
Now that she can cross off playing with Fowles, she explained a new goal to achieve, all while wearing a wide smile.
“I really want to get a play where I can pass the Syl or something like that one last time playing with her and that didn’t happen tonight, but it’s my goal before the season.”
Collier in a postgame interview encouraged fans to attend Friday night’s game, too, which could be Fowles’ final game at Target Center.
Jefferson extended her 3-point shooting percentage lead over the field with an excellent 4/5 shooting night from deep, on her way to amassing 18 points on 7/11 shooting. The former No. 2 overall pick is now shooting 49.3% from 3 (36/73), more than six points better than the next best shooter, Jackie Young of the Las Vegas Aces (42.9%).
She was also excellent as a distributor, dishing out six assists without turning the ball over.
Can't say enough about how Moriah Jefferson drove winning for the Lynx tonight.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) August 8, 2022
✅ 18 points (11 in 2H)
✅ 7/11 FG | 4/5 3PT
✅ 6 assists | 0 turnovers
✅ 4 rebounds
✅ 1 steal
✅ Team-high +20 in 29 minutes
✅ W in a must-win game
PG1 @_BonnBonn pic.twitter.com/UQZKhv3ZpQ
Collier brought her daughter Mila along for her postgame media presser. Mila was rocking her mom’s jersey, too.
Mila’s first postgame presser, wearing her mom’s jersey pic.twitter.com/aixDe90r7W— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) August 8, 2022
“Before, the most important thing my life was, you know, my family and basketball. Now she’s definitely number one. My family is so important to me. So she definitely gives me perspective where I’m doing this for her now,” Collier said postgame, explaining how Mila has changed her perspective on basketball and life. “I’m not just doing it for me. And I love the idea of her watching me play. She won’t remember this, but hopefully I’ll be playing for a long time to come and we can grow up together around this game that I love and to bring her part of that.”
Goodnight, Lynx fans.— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) August 8, 2022
Especially Mila. pic.twitter.com/mzfFdrpSdT
The Lynx will play the No. 8 seed Mercury on Wednesday at 9 PM CT. You can catch the game on Bally Sports North Extra and CBS Sports Network.
Here’s a look at the latest playoff picture.
Minnesota owns the tiebreaker over the four other teams listed in the image above, meaning if they finish the season with the same record as the Dream, Mercury, Liberty or Sparks, and are at least tied for a share of the No. 8 seed, the Lynx will make the playoffs.
Lynx fans should be rooting for the following:
- One of the Liberty or Dream to free fall
- The Mercury to lose out
- The Aces to win their next two games (vs ATL, vs CHI)
- The Sun to win their next two games (at LAS, at LAS)
In this scenario, Minnesota could beat Phoenix, pass them and one of Atlanta or New York in the standings, and potentially face a Connecticut team with nothing to play for on Sunday, because they would be locked into the No. 2 seed regardless of the outcome of that game. Not to mention they’d be playing in a 1 PM local time tip on the east coast barely 48 hours after playing the Sparks on Thursday night in Los Angeles, which would make this a game a reasonable spot for Curt Miller to rest key players ahead of the playoffs.