The moment that defined Rebekkah Brunson’s importance to the Minnesota Lynx happened late in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
The Lynx led Phoenix by four points with 37.5 seconds to go when Sylvia Fowles missed two foul shots. Bodies converged on the glass, among them Brittney Griner, the Mercury’s 6-foot-8 center.
Somehow the 6-foot-2 Brunson came out with the ball, her seventh offensive rebound of the night and 19th overall, a Lynx playoff record and a backbreaking development for the scrambling Mercury. Phoenix’s Marta Xargay fouled Brunson, who hit one of two foul shots, all but clinching the 67-60 victory. Coach Sandy Brondello later called Brunson “a beast,” and Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve pushed Brunson, who added 13 points, for a bandage endorsement.
“She needs to be the face of it,” Reeve said, “because there was not a bigger Band-Aid than what we just experienced tonight with Rebekkah.”
Brunson, 33, can be easily overlooked on a team with five U.S. Olympians, though only Seimone Augustus has been with the Lynx longer than her six seasons. In the Target Center Skyway, the most prominent billboard in the team’s “That’s How We Roar” campaign features Augustus, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen, but not Brunson. (Another billboard near the Timberwolves team store highlights Brunson alone.) Brunson is one of four Lynx captains along with Augustus, Whalen and Moore, and once in a while Reeve forgets to say Brunson’s name when she references the leadership group.
Luckily for the Lynx, Brunson isn’t someone who goes hunting for slights.
“It doesn’t matter what anyone is saying outside of this group right here,” Brunson said after practice earlier this week. “My teammates let me know how appreciative they are of my effort. And if they see it and the coaches see it, that’s all that matters. That’s an award.”
Chances are, someone besides Brunson will be the Most Valuable Player of the best-of-five WNBA finals that begin Sunday at Target Center. Maybe Moore. Maybe Augustus. Maybe Tamika Catchings or Briann January of the Indiana Fever, which ousted the New York Liberty, the team with the league’s best record, in a decisive Game 3 at Madison Square Garden with Spike Lee on hand. Don’t think Reggie Miller, who tormented the Knicks and Lee for years with the Indiana Pacers, isn’t chuckling over that.
But if the Lynx can win their third title in five years, and overcome the only team to beat them in a WNBA final (2012, in case anyone’s forgotten), Brunson undoubtedly will be in the midst of it, grabbing rebounds and hitting a few of those little 15-foot jumpers she’s mastered the last few years. Brunson won a WNBA title with Sacramento in 2005, so she’s shooting for her fourth, which would tie Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson and two more members of the 1997-2000 Houston Comets for the most in WNBA history.
“She has just a will that I don’t know if many other players have, a tenacity to get after the ball,” Whalen said. “Rebounding is a lot about heart and desire, and her will. I haven’t been around too many players quite like her. It’s no coincidence we’ve been in the finals so many times, because we’ve got a player like her that does everything, gets every huge rebound, and makes great plays. She’s one of the reasons why we’re in this position.”
Brunson was never herself last season after undergoing right knee surgery and missing the first 23 games. This year a healthy Brunson started all 34 games, the only Lynx player to do so. She averaged 7.8 points and 8.1 rebounds, leading the Lynx in total rebounds for the fifth time in six seasons. Brunson ranks fifth in league history with 2,746 total rebounds and third with 1,005 offensive rebounds, joining Yolanda Griffith and former teammate Taj McWilliams-Franklin as the only players with more than 1,000. And with her Game 1 performance against Phoenix, Brunson passed McWilliams-Franklin as league’s top playoff offensive rebounder.
The best rebounders read jump shots like golfers read greens. Most shots miss long, so establishing position on the opposite side of the rim from the shooter is paramount. So is boxing out and reacting quicker than the players next to you.
“Absolutely, there’s trajectory involved,” Brunson said. “You can look at a shot and determine where it’s going to come off. But there are nine other people on the court looking at that same shot. So it’s really about going in there and getting it, having the will to be the first to the ball, being relentless in your attack and continuing to pursue.
“That is something I’ve always done throughout my career, just attacking the glass, and I’ve been successful at it. I pride myself on being able to go out every night and do that, because I know that it helps my team. That’s what I can contribute. I’ve been blessed with some athleticism and a knack for the ball. I know if I keep going and I’m relentless in my pursuit, good things will happen.”
In Indiana, the Lynx face an equal in resilience and grit. Indiana lost Game 1 in both the Eastern Conference semifinals and finals before coming back to eliminate Chicago and New York, respectively. The Fever came from 18 points down to stun the Liberty in Game 2, spurred on by Catchings, a 10-time All-Star forward and three-time Olympic gold medalist who plans to retire after the 2016 Olympics.
Catchings’ ability to inspire and lift the players around her worries Reeve, who will feel a lot better if Brunson rebounds like she has.
“It’s a gift, it’s an instinct they have, a prideful determination,” Reeve said. “Having physical gifts is important too. Rebekkah is only 6-2. It’s not just a height thing. It’s timing and athleticism. Most importantly, it’s a gift that she was given that she utilizes every time she plays.”