Jim Souhan
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Real life prematurely ended the Minnesota Lynx's dynasty.

Real life could prematurely end their near-record playoff streak.

On Sunday, the Lynx will carry the worst record in the WNBA into a game in Las Vegas against the team with the league's best record.

The Lynx have played so poorly this season that coach and General Manager Cheryl Reeve expressed a measure of relief late Tuesday night after her team played with competitive fire and cohesiveness in a loss to Seattle at home.

That was a remarkable admission from a coach who has won four WNBA titles and has ascended to the role of Team USA head coach. She has not built her career on moral victories.

The Lynx are currently without center Sylvia Fowles, one of the greatest players in basketball history, because of a knee injury. That's damaging to their hopes, but they were playing poorly even with Fowles performing at a remarkably high level in her last season.

What's wrong with the once-great Lynx?

The answer may be as simple as subtraction.

Their dynasty ended when Maya Moore, at times the world's best player, retired to dedicate her time to social justice.

Their ability to compete in 2022 was hampered by star forward Napheesa Collier's pregnancy.

They have reached the playoffs in 11 straight seasons, the longest active streak in the league and second-longest in WNBA history.

There are two ways to measure a player's value — how a team performs with them, and how a team performs without them. Collier measures well in both ways.

She may be basketball's only underrated Olympian.

She is also the Lynx's best in-her-prime player.

Collier gives the Lynx scoring, defense, passing, rebounding and positional versatility. With long arms and a high release, she can get her shot off against almost anybody at any time. Her unselfishness enables her to play well alongside Fowles and the Lynx's perimeter scorers.

Collier may become more appreciated in absentia. If she's this valuable, maybe the Lynx's near future isn't hopeless. Maybe her return will reinvigorate a franchise that has refused to settle for rebuilding.

"How much do we miss Phee?'' Reeve said. "I would say: immensely. We miss Phee the person, and who she is when she's around us, and what she brings out of other people. She has the ability to connect with other people in a very natural way.

"She loves the franchise, loves practicing, loves being a Lynx and the responsibility that goes with that, and being a great player for the Lynx.

"We have some players that are exposed without Phee. That would be true for any team, when you take a player of that caliber out. Then everybody else is charged with doing a little bit more, and some people can and some people can't.

"The game comes easy for her. She plays really hard. She trusts — trusts in our culture, and her teammates — and those things are contagious. That's a pretty big void, without her.''

In three WNBA seasons, Collier has won the Rookie of the Year award, become an All-Star and made the Olympic team.

She could return later this season, if she recovers from childbirth in time. She is part of Team USA and would like to play in the World Cup in September.

Collier returning to lead the Lynx to the playoffs would be a wonderful story, but it's not something to bet on.

"She can't rush it," Reeve said. "She just had her baby three weeks ago. But she wants to get back into market and get back to playing. She misses it.

"I know she aspires to be on the World Cup team, I know she aspires to play with Sylvia Fowles. Those would be motivations. And if our team somehow finds its way into the playoff hunt, she would obviously love to help our team in any way possible. But regardless of whether she plays or not, being around her is going to be very good for the culture of our team.''