Until Wednesday, no player in the history of the WNBA had enough rings to fill an entire hand.
Now Rebekkah Brunson, an ultimate teammate and competitor, in a way unlike any other, stands alone.
The Minnesota Lynx topped the Los Angeles Sparks in Game 5 to clinch their fourth WNBA title in seven years. The core of Lindsay Whalen, Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and head coach Cheryl Reeve has been there for all of it. Finals MVP Sylvia Fowles, acquired by Minnesota in 2015, now has two rings.
Brunson, who is also part of that core, was a WNBA champ in 2005 as a member of the Sacramento Monarchs. That franchise folded after the 2009 season. She arrived in Minnesota via a dispersal draft.
And the rest is history…still in progress. The 35-year-old forward showed no major signs of slowing down through yet another Finals run. Brunson also isn’t yet a finished product, still adding to and sharpening her game.
“We all have shortcomings in our game,” Cheryl Reeve said. “[Brunson] has worked to kind of narrow the gap on her shortcomings, and shooting the ball all season long, getting the floor spaced for Syl.”
Brunson shot 34.8% on threes in the regular season on 66 attempts — a hair over two attempts per game. The 14th year pro had attempted twelve three-pointers in thirteen seasons prior. Brunson also shot 42.4% (28-for-66) from 11-to-21 feet as part of that effort to open up space inside for Fowles.
The Finals called for Brunson to prove it. The Sparks dared her to shoot. With Brunson positioned beyond the arc or near the elbows, Candace Parker would sag off her assignment to help on Fowles and in the paint.
Brunson struggled in Game 1 and Minnesota shifted toward more lineups with Jia Perkins on the floor with the starting group.
“Then we get to a series where they’re daring her to shoot, and it kind of rocked our world a little bit,” Reeve said. “Not to say that we were surprised, but Rebecca had to kind of — you take it personally a little bit when somebody is leaving you wide open.”
Take it personally she did. Brunson scored 12 points and blocked three shots. More importantly for the Lynx, she logged 37 minutes after playing just 16 in Game 1.
As the series pivoted to Los Angeles, the smaller lineups returned for Minnesota. Rookie guard Alexis Jones came into the fold for the first time all series. The Sparks took a 2-1 series lead and were on the verge of closing it out at home in Game 4.
Reeve then took a hard look at her team and chose to stay true to their identity, to Brunson, with the help of one small adjustment.
“Again, going through a series you gain a lot of information, and what we learned about Rebecca was just getting her low,” Reeve said. “I don’t know if you guys noticed the adjustment we made, but in Game 4 and Game 5, we spent more time with Brunson being on the opposite block as opposed to the top.”
Brunson made it to the free throw line a whopping 13 times in Game 4 alone. Those free throws and the dominance on the glass proved to be the ultimate separators in the series.
“It was a different type of double team that Syl was facing, was easier for her to see, and now I’m giving our opponents for next year all this good information,” Reeve said with a smile. “But I think it made a difference for Rebecca that we put her in her wheelhouse, which was getting on the glass.”
Brunson nabbed nine offensive boards in the final two games of the Finals, nearly matched the ten she had grabbed in her six prior playoff games.
“Rebecca is just — if you’re around our group, she’s the same every single day. She works her tail off every single day.” Reeve said.
The Lynx stayed true to really going after it on the glass and to their starting group. Brunson’s jumper was a welcome addition, but that alone wouldn’t decide the outcome of the Finals. Brunson is too good already with everything she’s had for years in her toolbox to contribute offensively beyond the rebounding.
The Lynx found Brunson plenty of times as the series aged on cuts and slips. Positioning her more along the baseline and closer to the rim made that easier to do. Here’s one of the more glaring examples of Minnesota finding Brunson as Parker sagged off her to play center field:
Brunson knocked down a handful of her midrange jumpers, all of which were key. The cuts, the slips, the quick drives to the rim, though, were what made the difference in the series offensively. With Brunson doing those things effectively, Minnesota no longer had reason to fear the idea of Los Angeles leaving her all alone.
Games 4 and 5 were a polar opposite to the semifinals in how the opponent reacted to the Sparks deploying that strategy to double a game-changing center. The Sparks were happy to ignore Camille Little in their series against the Phoenix Mercury. The Sparks doubled Brittney Griner and Little often found herself with the ball 17 feet from the basket.
Little, too, fired away from the outside in the regular season. The ‘prove it’ moments of the postseason came calling. The record scratched with Little again and again, as she refused to shoot or drive to score. She fired away in Game 3 of that series and got hot, but the Sparks survived to advance to the Finals.
Brunson’s shown the skill level and confidence to take two hard dribbles and score it at the rim. That didn’t change in the Finals. She even flashed a nice spin move several times to get to a short floater when a defender cuts her off:
Brunson had her work cut out for her in this series. Not only did she have to respond to how she was covered in Game 1 and bounce back from that night, she was tasked with guarding Candace Parker for all five games.
Parker’s all-around stat line from the series was impressive. But there was no 28 point outburst like the one she had in Game 5 of last year’s Finals or even a 24 point night like she had in 2016’s Game 3. Brunson came through with a few signature defensive plays on Parker in this year’s Game 5:
Brunson, in every sense possible, carved a path for the Lynx to stave off elimination once again in a Game 4 in Los Angeles. Then they did the same at home in Game 5 to make the Lynx WNBA champions once again.
“You’ve got Rebekkah Brunson, who just won her fifth ring, and she’s happy with the role that she had. It’s unbelievable. She doesn’t necessarily get as much attention from the outside as we give her,” Maya Moore said after Game 5. “But she just constantly gives and pours out. I think it’ll be hard to find another group that’s, like I said, as talented, as deep, but as selfless as this group.”
Moore and others will have a hard time catching Brunson as the all-time WNBA rings leader. But after reading such high praise and seeing how important she still is to the Lynx, it’s hard to imagine that she’ll be hanging ’em up anytime soon.
Reeve certainly hopes so.
“At the end of the day, she just said, I’m valuable to this team, I’m going to be myself, and I’m just thrilled that she’s now the all-time greatest champion in the history of our league. I told her we’re going to start working on the other hand.”
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