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Napheesa Collier being back a feel-good moment for Lynx

Napheesa Collier returned from maternity leave on Sunday and was happy to be back.

Atlanta Dream v Minnesota Lynx
Sylvia Fowles (jersey #34) and Napheesa Collier (jersey #24)
Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Minnesota Lynx (13-20) are one game back of the eighth and final playoff spot with three games to go. So they still have hope, but may need some help to get into the postseason.

On Sunday, after their 81-71 victory over the Atlanta Dream at Target Center in Minneapolis, they were able to take a step back from looking at the playoff picture and simply enjoy the fact that Napheesa Collier got to take the court with Sylvia Fowles during Fowles’ final WNBA season.

Collier had been out on maternity leave, missing the first 32 games of the 36-game season. She was the 2019 Rookie of the Year and in 2020 became a superstar alongside Fowles, helping to lead Minnesota to the WNBA semifinals. In 2021 she became an Olympian and again co-starred with Fowles en route to a No. 3 seed for the Lynx. Her absence this season has drastically changed the outlook of the team. If Minnesota is able to make the playoffs, Collier will make them a difficult team to eliminate.

Instead of resting her body for the remainder of a season where a postseason appearance is very much in doubt, Collier is going all in on a last-ditch playoff push. With one of the Lynx’s stars in Aerial Powers out with a knee injury, coach Cheryl Reeve and Collier decided to move Collier’s return up and it paid off with a win.

In addition to wanting to help the team win and make the playoffs, Collier will tell you that wanting playing with Fowles, her teammate of the last three years and one of the greatest centers in WNBA history, one last time has also been motivating her to return.

“I came here with the goal of playing with (my teammates) again and especially Syl, as I’ve made that no secret,” Collier said “So it felt so good to be on the court at the same time as her for this last season. And it was good to kind of get that rust off too. So, it was nice.

“I really want to get a play where I could pass to Syl or something like that for one last time, playing with her, and that didn’t happen tonight. But, that’s my goal before the end of the season. It’s always so nice to play with Syl. She’s a huge presence, a Hall-of-Famer. So any time she’s on the floor obviously good things happen. And it’s so cool to see greatness happening, especially for her last season, like we’re making history doing this and I’m seeing history being made in what she’s doing. She broke another record tonight with blocks. So it feels like every single game I’m just seeing some new record that she’s breaking. So I’m just really happy to be witness to that.”

Collier played 20 minutes and 51 seconds, finishing with six points, including a 3-point play with 7:51 to go that raised Minnesota’s lead to eight. She also had a 3-pointer, two rebounds, an assist, a steal and a block.

“I think I played double what I was supposed to play,” she said, referring to her minutes restriction. “It was really good. I was surprised when (Coach Reeve) kept putting me back in, but I wasn’t gonna say anything. ... I felt a little winded, as to be expected. Until the very end when I was really feeling it. I’m not back to where I want to be, but it was a good first game.”

“Worst-case scenario you’re talking about a sub for 15 minutes that is gonna be productive,” Reeve said of why it made sense to play Collier even if she wasn’t 100 percent. “Whether she’s gonna get you rebounds or deflections or, like, movement on offense, then she would be a net positive. So that was my kind of bar for her. And I would say she exceeded maybe what I thought she could do.

“Bit of an outer-body experience because it’s like, it’s nice to have her, but to spend 32 games without her and then to finally have her. She’s like a security blanket for everybody.”

“It’s just great to have her around,” Kayla McBride said of Collier. “She’s a big part of who we are as a franchise and as a team. She’s our sister. So to have her out there with us, it means a lot. I know it means a lot for her, the way the fans embraced her.”

When news came that Powers would be out on Sunday, Reeve approached Collier about potentially playing. Collier gave birth to her daughter, Mila, on May 26.

“I was trying to weigh all my options and not just rush into it,” she said. “Because obviously I really want to play, but I wanted to think about too my body, am I ready? And 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 and I'm really happy that I did.”

At the postgame press conference, Collier sat with Mila, who was donning a No. 24 Napheesa Collier Lynx jersey, in her lap and spoke to what it’s like now, being a mother.

“It’s definitely changed my perspective. Before, the most important thing in my life was my family and basketball. And now she’s definitely No. 1. My family is so important to me. So she definitely gives me perspective where I’m doing this for her now, 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.”

As mentioned, the Lynx could be a dangerous team in the playoffs with a full roster. Collier is a big reason why the team has been able to continue its 11-year streak of making the playoffs beyond the departures of Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson. Can she help them come up with some magic in these final three games of the 2022 regular season and beyond?

“I’m not gonna try to come in and do too much, I’m gonna play my role, give effort like I always do and let the game kinda come to me and not force it,” she said. “And help us just try to make a playoff push. 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.”