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Rebekkah Brunson’s return accelerates Minnesota Lynx resurgence

The 17-6 Lynx, already jelling despite numerous injuries, get a big boost from a badly needed inside presence.

If all goes as planned, Brunson will make her season debut Tuesday night when the Lynx host Atlanta.
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig

The squealing children weren’t yet in their seats at the Target Center when the Lynx power forwards and centers — the “bigs” in basketball nomenclature — went through their usual pregame drills 90 minutes before the Lynx faced Tulsa in Wednesday’s annual Camp Day matinee.

Assistant coach Jim Petersen stood in the lane holding a huge pad, almost the size of an umpire’s chest protector. He pushed into the body of each player as they drove for layups. Those who watch WNBA regularly know how physical it is, and the drill simulates typical in-game body contact. Players who can’t muscle through and score don’t last long in the league. 

Veteran power forward Rebekkah Brunson, feeling chipper and moving well on a surgically-repaired right knee, ran sprightly through all the drills before changing back into street clothes and watching the 93-82 Lynx victory from a seat behind the Lynx bench.

Her vantage point is about to change.

Pain-free for the first time in a year

If all goes as planned, Brunson will make her season debut Tuesday night when the Lynx host Atlanta, the first of 11 games left in the regular season. If Seimone Augustus (left knee bursitis) also returns, the Lynx will be fully healthy for the first time all season.

“That will be ideal, but we’ll have to see,” Brunson said.

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By WNBA rule, teams can’t practice during this weekend’s All-Star Break. Just as well. Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Augustus and Coach Cheryl Reeve will be in Phoenix with the Western Conference squad for the game on Saturday (2:30 p.m. Central time, ESPN). Augustus won’t play — Seattle’s Sue Bird replaced her — but the league requires injured players to appear at All-Star related activities.

So Brunson plans to work out on her own. Reeve and trainer Chuck Barta will have a full practice Monday and a shootaround Tuesday morning to evaluate Brunson and Augustus. Brunson still hasn’t been through a full scrimmage with contact.

“I’ll put here in a game as soon as Chuck says she’s clear,” Reeve said. “I have no reservation. The only thing I have to consider is if Chuck gives me minute limitations, how I want to manage that. I’m not very good at it. I don’t know any coach that is. That’s why Chuck always tells me less than he really wants me to do.”

Brunson said her right knee is pain-free for the first time in more than a year. The May 13 surgery removed damaged tissue and debris from her patella tendon. 

“It’s something that had been hindering me since last season,” Brunson said. “Right now it feels tons better than it did then. I’m just hoping to get my power back and my strength back and I’ll be there. It feels great.”

Certainly, the 17-6 Lynx missed her rebounding, defense and short-range jump shooting. A three-time WNBA All-Star and five-time all-defensive team selection, last season Brunson averaged 10.6 points while leading the Lynx in rebounding (8.9 per game) for the fourth consecutive year. She posted 12 of her franchise-record 41 double-doubles last year, eight on the road.

“When Rebekkah plays, you don’t know of any ailments, because she only goes one way,” Reeve said. “She might be hurting, but you don’t know it, just because when she’s out there she’s giving you everything she has.

“That’s why I know that the next time she plays, the minimum I’m going to get is a player that runs really, plays really hard, defends really hard and gets every rebound. The rust will be simply remembering plays, just getting up to speed with what we’re doing this year.”

Winning wounded

Rookie Damiris Dantas and third-year forward Devereaux Peters mainly shared Brunson’s minutes, with some help from Moore playing out of position. Peters, who sat out the first five games recovering from left knee surgery, is on the upswing, averaging 6.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks off the bench the last 12 games. Dantas turned inconsistent after an encouraging start, which is typical for rookies adjusting to the league’s compressed schedule, physicality and travel demands.  She bounced back Wednesday with 10 points and 11 rebounds, her first double-double in a month.

“She played with an assertiveness that was fun to watch,” Reeve said. “We haven’t seen it in awhile with Damiris.” 

The development of Peters and Dantas, with Brunson returning and center Janel McCarville in better shape than last year, gives the Lynx four post players Reeve can count on, a first in her five seasons here. So Reeve shouldn’t be compelled to push Brunson.

As it is, the Lynx somehow navigated an unprecedented rash of knee injuries to match their 23-game record from last year. Monica Wright also started the season late after knee surgery, while Augustus missed the last seven games and eight overall.

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Reeve credits a lot of that to Moore, the WNBA’s leading scorer at 24.1 points per game, and point guard Lindsay Whalen, who ranks ninth in scoring (a career-high 15.2) and third in assists (5.6). Tulsa Coach Fred Williams paid Moore the ultimate compliment Wednesday, calling her “the Michael Jordan of this league” after her 32-point, 9-rebound, 5-assist effort with two steals.

“It’s a strong, strong testament to how good Lindsay and Maya are, to be sitting here at 17-6 with all that we’ve been through,” Reeve said.

“Maya is just doing so much more, not just the scoring. Obviously scoring is really helpful, but it’s everything that she’s given us. I’m pleased at this point, and really excited and look forward to having both Seimone and Rebekkah back in the lineup.”

Moore pointed to road losses in Seattle on June 27 and New York on July 6 as teachable moments, winnable games that got away. The 87-80 loss to the Liberty at Madison Square Garden was the last in a 6-6 funk that followed the season-opening seven-game winning streak. Since then the Lynx have won four straight, all without Augustus.

“Since that New York game, we’re been pretty diligent about our tenacity on the defensive end, making sure we’re communicating and on the same page,” Moore said. “Our connectiveness has increased, which is why you see us not making the same mistakes and defensive lapses you saw from us in some of the games that we lost. We’re right where we want to be, compared to where we were.”

Moore on Jeter

By the way: That is Moore tipping her cap in the latest Nike commercial honoring Derek Jeter. Moore, like Jeter, endorses Nike’s Jordan Brand. She filmed her piece in a New York City park last spring.

“Fortunately I was not overseas and was able to participate in the campaign to celebrate Derek and his awesome career,” Moore said. “There’s a lot of things I can look up to, as far as how he handled himself in his career, his professionalism, being an all-around team guy. It was cool to participate.”

Moore said she and Jeter, who is 15 years older, have never met. Jeter, of course, was just in Minneapolis for baseball’s All-Star Game. Moore played in the celebrity softball game at Target Field last Sunday night, but Jeter didn’t get to town until Monday. “Hopefully our paths will cross again,” she said.