Sheryl Swoopes. Cynthia Cooper. Tina Thompson. They sucker punched the League in the face, capturing the first four championships in WNBA history. Their Houston Comets were beyond dominant. With Thompson fortifying the middle and Swoopes and Cooper wreaking havoc on the perimeter, they solidified themselves as the W’s first, and best, dynasty, collecting a 114-26 record, including only two playoff loses, from 1997-2000.
In the 16 years since their last title, the Detroit Shock (now disbanded), Phoenix Mercury and Minnesota Lynx have all won three titles. The Lynx have won three of the last five, and have been to four of the last five Finals. Today, they start their journey for four, tipping off against the Los Angeles Sparks at 3 EST.
Rebekkah Brunson has been the backbone for the Lynx since 2010. The 6-2 forward is in her twelfth season in the League and her sixth with Minnesota. She was part of the Sacramento Monarchs’ championship squad back in 2005, has three chips with the Lynx and if she and the squad win this series, she’ll get her fifth ring, making her the winningest woman in WNBA history. But of course, Brunson isn’t even thinking about rewriting history.
“Right now I’m focused on the moment. Five rings doesn’t mean anything unless you have five rings,” she says. “I can’t start thinking about what that could possibly mean, I just have to focus on what we’re trying to do right now, game by game.”
The Lynx are trying to slow down a Sparks offense led by Candace Parker, the 2008 and 2013 MVP, and Nneka Ogwumike, this season’s MVP. The responsibility of limiting the League’s best front line will fall partly on Brunson’s shoulders. Lynx Assistant coach Jim Peterson says the Lynx are going to rely heavily on Brunson yet again.
“Last year, LA was the hardest series for us,” Peterson says. “We don’t beat LA without Brunson. What she was able to get done against Parker—getting into Parker, making life difficult for Parker, not letting her do what she does. Candace Parker is unbelievably talented. Brunson just plays so hard, she makes life difficult for anybody she plays against.”
The Lynx make life difficult for anybody they play against. They throw out the most comprehensive and dynamic starting five in the League. Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus destroying opposing forwards with constant scoring. Lindsay Whalen carving up defenses to deliver pinpoint passes. Sylvia Fowles dominating the paint. The foursome was part of the Gold Medal-winning 2016 Olympic Squad.
And then there’s Brunson, the overlooked and underrated member of the starting five. The League-leader for all-time playoff games played. Fifth in total career rebounds, second in total postseason rebounds. The owner of four championship rings.
“Everybody focuses on Maya, Whalen, Seimone and Syl, but we don’t win any of these championships without Rebekkah Brunson,” Peterson, who’s been with Lynx for eight years, says.
They don’t see Brunson coming until it’s too late. Until she’s dropped 12 clutch points and snatched 8 impossible rebounds. And there’s no reason to miss out on Brunson—she’s a three-time All-Star, a five-time All-WNBA defensive team member, the Lynx’s franchise leader in double-doubles.
Her teammates and coaching staff recognize both how valuable she is and what winning this series could mean for her.
“I think they’re more excited for me than I am,” Brunson laughs. “I have great teammates. They’re not only great players but they’re great people.
“We just have a special group of people,” she continues. “We care about each other off the court as well on as the court. We also hold each other accountable. We don’t take it personally. My teammates could yell at me and tell me what I need to do, and I know it’s coming from a good place. It’s not coming from a negative place. We’re more capable of listening to each other, allowing great players to guide each other, in order to win and be successful.”
The Lynx have been ridiculously successful. Since 2010, the team has had one MVP (Moore), one DPOY (Fowles) and two COY trophies for Cheryl Reeve.
“One of the great things that Cheryl did, when she came in as head coach, she made Seimone, Whalen and Brunson, be not just team leaders, but vocal team leaders,” Peterson says. “They had to stand in a circle every practice and they would have to talk. They would have to say what they saw, what needed to be done.
“That first year, we were not good. Brunson probably wasn’t a vocal leader on any team she’s been on. But Cheryl made them stand there in a circle and be vocal team leaders. Whalen would always go first, then Cheryl would make Seimone speak. When Brunson spoke, the clarity that she would speak with, the things that she would see, the things she would identify, it was so good. Whenever she would talk, she would say the perfect thing for that time. You just go, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’ That’s the beauty of Rebekkah Brunson.”
The best-of-5 2016 WNBA Finals, between the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks, start today at 3 EST on ABC.
Photo via Getty Images.