The joke in the Lynx locker room is that Napheesa Collier, one of the WNBA's most composed players, doesn't need to complain to the officials, yell about calls and noncalls or plead her case.
She has a person for that.
"I do it for her,'' Kayla McBride said after a recent practice. "I'm like, 'That's a foul! We have a superstar on this team, treat her like that!' I have no problem saying that. That's my job. Like being a big sister.''
Sisters. The Lynx open the 2023 playoffs — a return to the postseason after an 11-year streak was broken last year — with a game at Connecticut on Wednesday in the opener of a best-of-three series. There is some frustration as the playoffs commence, with the Lynx entering it on a two-game, defensively challenged losing streak.
But the Lynx are just the second team in league history to make the playoffs after an 0-6 start. The other was the 2015 Sparks, who lost to a Lynx team about to win its third league crown.
Collier and McBride are extremely proud of that fact, how the team rebounded from its slow start. Listen to them, and you can almost see the chip on their shoulders.
"We had a rough start,'' Collier said. "But we knew we were destined for more than that. This team had more potential. A lot of people doubted us. It feels really good to have done that.''
McBride: "Some teams would have folded. We kept fighting back.''
These two are the biggest reasons.
In her fifth season, and one year after being limited to four games by the birth of her daughter, Collier has ascended to the league's top tier, averaging a career-high 21.5 points to go with 8.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks. She has scored in double figures in all but two games, at least 20 points 22 times, at least 25 points 13 times and five games with 30 or more. When coach Cheryl Reeve decided to make Collier the team's lone captain — a first in Reeve's time here, but that will change when McBride joins Collier next year — it was a sign for her fifth-year player to step up.
McBride? Her 14.3-point scoring average is the highest in her three years with the Lynx, the fourth-highest of her 10-year career. Her 83 made threes are her best and lead the team.
Together they compliment each other, in both their play and their attitude. Their instinctual play, especially in the pick and roll, has at times been deadly. Their leadership styles have meshed as well. Collier is quieter, steadier, calmer. McBride is louder, more combustible, animated. McBride has become the veteran voice on a team getting huge contributions from draftees Diamond Miller and Dorka Juhász; Miller is proud to call herself "one of KMac's rookies." The Lynx rewarded McBride with a contract extension this week.
The joke is that if McBride is there to plead Collier's case, Collier is there to rein McBride in.
"I need that sometimes from Phee,'' McBride said. "When I'm spitting and cussing and doing all these stuff because I want to win so badly, having someone with a calm demeanor helps me.
"It's literally like fire and ice. And it's that way the whole time. But it works.''
Getting back on track
After the team's 0-6 start, Reeve challenged Collier.
"It wasn't that she played poorly,'' Reeve said. "But she needed to recognize she needed to do more to take over the game. She needed to be more selfish.''
Collier promptly averaged nearly 24 points a game over the next 12, during which the Lynx went 9-3.
"I've broken through a little bit,'' said Collier, who finished fourth in the league in scoring and efficiency, seventh in rebounds and steals and 13th in blocks. "Not playing for so long was hard. Being able to push through that and stay aggressive is important, and I think I had that.''
McBride endured a shooting slump at the end of July, missing 15 straight shots over three games. But, late in a one-sided loss to Las Vegas, Reeve kept McBride in the game hoping she'd find her touch. She did, making three three-pointers.
In the 17 games since: 46% shooting, 35.3% on threes, 16.6 points per game.
"It was being more aggressive, in all facets of the game,'' she said. "Bringing the ball up, getting assists, defensively. ''
Since McBride got here, she has scored 20 or more points 19 times. The Lynx are 16-3 in those games. Sunday's regular-season finale was the only time the Lynx have lost when both Collier and McBride scored 20 in the same game.
Their synergy is obvious. In the pick and roll, one of the two is going to get a good look. If defenses load up on McBride, Collier has room to work. Switch off on Collier, and McBride might have an open three.
"They understand each other's game so well,'' Reeve said. "They play the same way, in terms of whether it's the sharing of the ball or being in the right place at the right time. It's rooted in trust.''
Finding a balance
It's the same with their leadership — contrasting but complementary. Collier has stepped up as the lone captain, but Reeve credits McBride's nurturing the young players as a key in the team's return to the playoffs. After all, Collier, in her fifth year, is a vet. "But KMac is twice the veteran,'' Reeve said.
McBride is the one making suggestions on the court or during timeouts. She's the one exhorting teammates, talking about calls. Collier is the one who will pull a player aside for a one-on-one.
"It's two different styles,'' Miller said. "KMac will talk a little more. Phee, it's her actions that show how it should be done. It's a good combination, a yin to the yang. They balance each other out.''
And they will be doing that for a while. Collier and McBride are cornerstones of a franchise and will be together for at least the next two seasons.
"That pairing, moving forward, I'm excited for it,'' Reeve said. "It gives us two players you can count on that we're going to add to.''