Beware, WNBA: the Minnesota Lynx collective is getting stronger

NEW YORK—Rebekkah Brunson did not make history Thursday night in New York.

Just five rebounds short of 3,000 for her WNBA career, Brunson collected only four.

She didn’t seem particularly concerned about it, following Thursday night’s 90-71 win over the New York Liberty at Madison Square Garden.

It’s part of a larger sacrifice the Lynx players make routinely. A lineup filled with future Hall of Famers in their 30s could be adding to their counting stats. Instead, they look like they’ve figured out a way to get even better, following a 2015 championship and 2016 that ended one possession short of the repeat.

Take rebounding, for example. Brunson’s career rebounding percentage of 18.44 is fourth-best in the history of the league. Left to her own devices, she’d be closing in on laying claim to individual honors as the WNBA’s greatest rebounder ever.

Just ahead of her, at 18.85? Sylvia Fowles, her teammate.

ST PAUL, MN – MAY 14: Rebekkah Brunson

“Oh, man, that’s going to make it hard to catch her!” Brunson exclaimed, sitting in front of her locker following the game. But she said it with a big smile.

The extent to which Fowles is now seamlessly integrated into what the Lynx do reflects well on Cheryl Reeve and the Minnesota coaching staff, who had to change the way the team operated without disturbing what the Lynx did so well en route to titles in 2011 and 2013 once Fowles came to the Minnesota in a mid-season 2015 deal with the Chicago Sky.

[More at The Summitt: WATCH: Reeve praises team balance after win]

“They used to crash into each other, back in 2015,” Reeve told The Summitt following Thursday’s game. “And they’ve worked that out—because nobody would get the rebound. But I would say at this point, depends on the matchup—today, Rebekkah was down around the basket more. But Syl’s around the basket the most. And so I understand why she’s third. But Rebekkah’s one of the all-time greatest. And top five in the history of the league in anything is quite a feat.”

It’s worth noting that the pair can make a claim even beyond top five: the two ahead of them in rebounding percentage, Courtney Paris and Cheryl Ford, did so in thousands fewer minutes than the pair of Minnesota bigs.

They have competition on the glass from other teammates as well—like Maya Moore, who collected a game-high 11 rebounds to go with her 16 points and six assists.

NEW YORK, NY – MARY 18: Maya Moore

“The three of us are always competing for the same ball,” Moore said. “We have to create a flow—sometimes, that’s communicating while we’re still in the air. But this is a good problem to talk about—and I personally am thankful we’re talking about two of my teammates.”

That flow helped decide Thursday night’s game. The Liberty made a run to cut Minnesota’s lead to 74-67 midway through the fourth. Out of a timeout, the call came to find Moore in the corner for three. She hit it, displaying that otherworldly ability to make the key play at the moment her team needs it most, from a great Lindsay Whalen pass.

“I just stay in the moment,” Moore said. “I’m always on edge while I’m playing, trying to find the next moment to impact the game. But I felt it, that was a big play, and if you’re going to take it, make it kind of three, because I wasn’t wide open. But I was feeling it in the moment, and that’s what basketball is, a game of feel.”

[More at The Summitt: PODCAST with Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve]

But it doesn’t fall on Moore alone. The next basket went to Fowles, fed by Brunson. Then Seimone Augustus scored on an isolation call. Then Brunson hit a three-pointer, on another Whalen pass.

Game over, that fast. Four of the Lynx starters, each one scoring, while the fifth collected a pair of assists. All five finished in double figures against an elite Liberty defense, seemingly getting what they wanted, when they wanted it.

Reeve recognizes the luxury she has, but also the responsibility.

ST PAUL, MN – MAY 14: Lindsay Whalen and Cheryl Reeve

“Maya’s arguably the best player in the world, Syl’s arguably the best center in the world,” Reeve said. “So when you have that, it’s important that when it’s Maya’s turn, let Maya do her thing, and then be cognizant that you have Syl… We’ve just been together. We know each other well. It doesn’t always end in a W, but we’re confident that we know what each other is doing.”

Still, the Lynx have decided to keep improving, not by adding personnel—though their depth is as impressive as ever, now with Plenette Pierson coming off the bench to join a second unit the envy of the league, with Jia Perkins, Renee Montgomery and Natasha Howard, deployed expertly by Reeve to keep her veteran starters fresh—but by pushing their established stars to add the three-pointer to an attack that finished atop the league in offensive efficiency last year, despite ranking eleventh in the league in made and attempted threes.

And so it came to pass that Brunson, a career 15.4 percent shooter from three on just 13 attempts, clinched the game with a new skill she’s worked tirelessly to add, a Hall of Famer still getting better after her 35th birthday.

“I think I shoot it really well,” Brunson said. “It’s something I went into the offseason working on, it’s something I work on every day. Last year, it was the 15-footer, so this is branching out from there. She told us last year it was something she wanted us to work on, so it became a collective goal for us as a team.”

The early returns on this new initiative are excellent: seven different Lynx players hit threes Thursday night, tying a franchise record last reached in 2012.

NEW YORK, NY – MARY 18: Sylvia Fowles

Even with her newfound role away from the basket, Brunson is on pace to pass Taj McWilliams-Franklin (another former teammate) and Tina Thompson this year on the all-time list for rebounds, with Lisa Leslie and the WNBA leader, Tamika Catchings, in reach sometime in 2018.

Of course, the glory may be temporary. Fowles is four years younger, and already up to eleventh all-time in total rebounds. Like her interior counterpart, Fowles is okay with missing out on some individual leaderboards, considering how dangerous this Lynx team looks as a group.

“That’s okay,” Fowles said. “If we set records as a unit, that’s alright with me.”