Napheesa Collier left the court to an ovation and a lengthy hug from her coach. If her teammates had given her that kind of support Wednesday night, the moment might have been more sweet than bitter.
The Lynx's 2023 season began abysmally and ended as a relative success, but what it proved to be most of all, after all of the ups and downs, was confusing. The Lynx won a lot of games for a team that doesn't have enough good players.
And they barely used one of their most-talented — Aerial Powers, who probably had an Uber driver waiting at the front of Target Center when the game, and the Lynx's season, ended.
The Lynx have quality role players, and a couple of nice complementary players. When it comes to difference-making, championship-contending, cornerstone players, they currently have one: Collier.
On Wednesday, Collier was brilliant, leading the Lynx with 31 points and five rebounds despite a sore back. She'll have to remember that, when carrying this franchise, she'll need to lift with her legs.
Connecticut defeated the Lynx, 90-75, to win the teams' first-round playoff series. Kayla McBride and Diamond Miller — Collier's most important sidekicks — combined for 16 points on 5-for-18 shooting.
The Lynx signed McBride as a quality complement to Collier, but in Game 3, following her brilliant performance in Game 2, she was far too quiet, continuing her trend of appearing and disappearing as if conjured by a hiccupping illusionist.
The Lynx can't count on transforming themselves through free agency. They can't count on being lucky enough to find another Collier, who has overachieved remarkably as a No. 6 pick.
The fastest, surest way for the Lynx to improve is for Miller to become a star.
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said she was determined to play Miller this season "even if she was bad.'' Reeve purposely put her in difficult situations, wanting her to learn how to play in one of the world's most talent-packed leagues, and was surprised that Miller's knack for getting to the free-throw line didn't translate immediately to the pros.
Next season, the Lynx will need Miller to stuff the stat sheet, not sprinkle it. To play full-speed for an entire season, and postseason instead of fizzling like a spent firework.
Miller was the second pick in a draft that featured one star — Aliyah Boston, who went to Indiana. Miller was a versatile college player who became a versatile WNBA rookie, capable of scoring, driving, dishing, defending and pushing pace.
At her best, she could hassle a shooter, grab the rebound, lead the fast break and either create an open shot for a teammate or finish herself, with her patented winding, twisting layups.
At her worst, she looked like a rookie who moved quickly but not always in the right direction.
Now that she knows how difficult the WNBA is, Miller owes it to herself and her team to develop a reliable three-point shot and a lane jumper or floater that will allow her to score easily without having to contort herself around the rim.
She'll have to get stronger and savvier, too.
It would be unfair to ask Miller to become a powerhouse star like Connecticut's Alyssa Thomas, one of the best players in the world, but Thomas is the right role model for her game. Both played at Maryland, and Thomas can dominate a game without shooting, just as Miller often did in college.
Sun coach Stephanie White called Thomas "the most underrated superstar in our league.''
Of Collier, White said: "She's going to be an MVP in our league. … She's a unique and special talent.''
Reeve said: "I just give Phee so much credit. She's special. And obviously a really important piece for us moving forward.''
The Lynx have found their latest superstar in Collier. If they aren't going to land a co-star in free agency or the draft, they'll need Miller to prove in the next year that she's ready for her close-up.
"It was a growth season,'' Reeve said. "We have some work to do with this roster.''