Phee Makes Last Day of 23 a Memorable One

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Is there a cooler way to turn 24 than by playing some of the best basketball of your life on the biggest stage in the world? 

Napheesa Collier spent her last evening as a 23-year-old thoroughly vexing 2018 WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart in the third playoff game of her wildly auspicious career. Today Collier can celebrate, eating all the banana bread she pleases (don’t forget the sour cream!) before Game 2 of the WNBA Semifinals between Minnesota and Seattle on Thursday night. 

Collier’s astounding stat line of 25 points (10-of-17 shooting, 4-of-5 from three), nine rebounds, and six blocks fell inches short as the Storm took Game 1, 88-86, behind commanding play from Jewell Loyd and the late game heroics of Alysha Clark. 

Too often, we let wins and losses dictate our sporting narratives. I wrote about Loyd and Clark earlier this season, and they deserve all the adulation in the world. But are we going to let archaic, results-oriented thinking erase one of the most impressive ten minutes stretches I’ve ever seen on a basketball court? Absolutely not. 

Collier definitively announcing herself as one of the best basketball players on the planet isn’t at all surprising to those who’ve been paying attention. I had Collier third on my “This is Meaningless – You Don’t Have a Vote” MVP ballot, trailing only A’ja Wilson and Candace Parker. My love and appreciation for her game is well documented. But last night was different. 

This was “kid in the schoolyard who always gets picked first” type play. 

This was “Rihanna at the Met Gala” type preeminence. 

This was unadulterated greatness, plain and simple. 

Collier was named Rookie of the Year in 2019. The Lynx made the playoffs, losing to Seattle, 84-74, in the first round. Undaunted by the moment, Collier tallied 19 points, 10 rebounds, two steals, and a block while missing only three shots in her first professional playoff action. The UConn graduate had already “arrived.”

The Seattle Storm look mighty different this year. Stewart and Sue Bird are back. The team went 18-4 and posted the best Net Rating in the WNBA by a large margin. They are deeper than a volume of poetry. 

Yet Collier was clearly the best player on the floor Tuesday night. She logged one of the most dominant defensive (and all-around) fourth quarters I’ve ever seen, period. It was truly mesmerizing stuff.

Let’s break it down: 

A Fourth Quarter for the Ages

Before we dive into the final ten minutes, here’s the first Collier rejection of the evening. 

Collier 1, Stewie 0. 

Now onto crunch time. Minnesota trailed by nine points early in the fourth quarter. Stewart began the frame on the bench, freeing Collier to guard Natasha Howard. This was an advantageous matchup for the Lynx. 

While much of this deep-dive will focus on Collier’s exceptional defense, she was Minnesota’s best source of offense, too. The second-year forward shot 41 percent from behind the arc in 2020 and nailed this spot-up attempt to spur a Lynx surge. 

Keep watching. Seattle sets up its offense and sends Sami Whitcomb into the middle of the lane, where she sets a screen for Howard at the top of the restricted area. The Storm will try this again later in the quarter. Collier fights over the screen and recovers in time to take away Howard’s angle. Boom. Block number two. 

I had to limit myself video-wise or this article would’ve turned into an epic. Soon after her block of Howard, Collier slid a beautiful entry pass into the post that the generally surehanded Damiris Dantas fumbled. Collier then executed a number of seamless switches. Your attention span may not be long enough for the full fourth quarter Collier catalogue, and that’s entirely understandable. 

Watch the sharp path Collier takes here to get to her spot just off the low block. Easy money. On the other end, Collier switches onto Loyd as Loyd runs a pick-and-roll with Stewart. This is not an easy assignment for Collier, but she manages to poke the ball from Loyd’s grip, then uses her length to bother Loyd, inducing a dangerous pass that gets intercepted. This is one of those “basketball is bigger than the box score” type of defensive possessions. 

Okay, this is where things become ridiculous. First, Collier sniffs out Stewart’s patented turnaround jumper and sends it back. Seattle tips its cap and says, “surely you can’t stop the 2018 Finals MVP two times in a row,” again feeding Stewart. Collier rebukes this attempt, too. Never one to tout her own accomplishments (save for the rare whoa-turned-shimmy), Collier knew she had done something special here. Her smile and eyebrow raise as she high-fives Odyssey Sims tells the whole story. Collier managed to impress herself. 

Oh, and then on the ensuing inbounds play, Collier denies entry to Stewart, forcing Bird to look for Loyd, who proceeds to nail an extremely difficult leaner off the glass. 

At this point, Collier had basically eliminated Stewart as a threat. I know that sounds ludicrous, like hyperbole deployed for dramatic effect. 

BUT STEWART ATTEMPTED FOUR SHOTS IN THE FOURTH QUARTER AND COLLIER BLOCKED THEM ALL. 

Here’s the third one: 

Collier and Dantas communicate well in transition, switching assignments as the Lynx scramble to get set. Later in the possession, Dantas gets screened and Bridget Carleton picks up Stewart. As Clark fires an entry pass into Stewart, Collier notices that the baseline is wide open and Stewart is primed for an easy layup. So Collier leaves Howard and scoots across the lane at just the right time, meeting Stewart as she dribbles and lifts. This is my favorite of the six blocks. Collier is an expert helper, remarkably shrewd when it comes to moving around the floor and providing reinforcement as needed. 

More offense. Collier’s velvety stroke secures three more points over the long arms of Howard, the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year. The Lynx vault into the lead. 

More defense. Collier helps off of Stewart and onto Loyd at the perfect moment, forcing Loyd to dump the rock off to Howard. Collier’s instincts force yet another turnover. 

Over the course of the next couple possessions, Collier continues to impact the game at every turn. She draws a foul on Stewart with a canny little move towards the baseline into an attempted reverse layup. Later, she seals Stewart deep in the post, occupying the potential helper as Sims races past Howard for an easy layup. 

The sixth and final block came after a series of possessions in which the Storm didn’t even look to their best player because of Collier’s denial. Here, Seattle again tries to get Collier stuck in screening actions as Clark sets a good one on the weak side of the lane. Collier quickly recovers, forcing Stewart out near the three-point line and pestering her before the ball reaches her hands. Stewart goes back to the well in the form of another turnaround jumper. Collier goes back to the well and makes sure the ball doesn’t even reach the rim.

And now: the icing on the banana bread. 

A do-or-die possession. Minnesota knows where it wants to go – to its star. One of Collier’s most underrated talents is sealing off defenders as close to the hoop as possible, as we saw earlier. Here she again does an incredible job of securing position on Stewart – an elite defender in her own right. This allows Collier to break out one of her favorite moves, the old up-and-under. Stewart bites. Collier pounces. The difficulty on this finish is notable. Pause the video as Collier is about to release the ball. Four Seattle defenders have at least a foot in the lane and the fifth, Loyd, is on her way there. Collier puts a little english on her shot, kissing it off the glass and in. Tie ballgame. 

We all saw what happened on the game’s final possession. Collier stayed in front of Stewart, forcing Stewart to dish to Whitcomb. Whitcomb missed a heavily contested layup but Clark was there for the clean-up, tossing in the game-winning layup as time expired. 

Whitcomb is a prolific shooter and plenty capable of hitting a game-winner. But the fact that Seattle’s best player didn’t even seriously consider taking the biggest shot of the game is a massive win for Minnesota.  

You know what else was a massive win for Minnesota? A franchise-defining, course-altering win? Drafting Collier 6th overall in the 2019 WNBA Draft. I remain flabbergasted by this occurrence. The talent was clear as a cloudless afternoon. 

A happy birthday, indeed.

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