On June 16, the night the Lynx began a five-game winning streak, Rebekkah Brunson was asked to guard New York’s high-scoring forward Tina Charles, who subsequently went 5-for-14 and was a minus-7.
Three nights later, against Dallas, Brunson started and finished the game by guarding Glory Johnson, who finished with four points. But in the first half, with Sylvia Fowles on the bench with foul trouble, Brunson was put on high-scoring 6-9 center Liz Cambage for a stretch.
In Phoenix, it was bruising power forward Sancho Lyttle whom she guarded. In Vegas, it was presumptive rookie of the year A’ja Wilson, who scored a season-low 10 points. Tuesday it was Seattle star Breanna Stewart. While Stewart scored 27 points, she was a minus-17. And, in the first quarter, when the Lynx essentially took control of the game, Brunson held Stewart to four points.
Are you sensing a pattern?
In modern pro basketball, where the ability to guard at multiple positions has become more and more important, Brunson, 36, is an old-school player who has been doing this for years. Much has been made of the resurgence of Maya Moore over this winning streak, and the play of Fowles.
Brunson has been a big part of it, too. Usually asked to cover the other team’s most dangerous player, Brunson been remarkably successful during the Lynx’s win streak.
“Everyone’s talking about Maya and Syl, and obviously it’s very important what they’re doing,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said, “but Brunson is the glue to everything we do.”
Reeve has been saying this for years, and it’s true. There have been so many times when visiting coaches watch a practice and are stunned at the impact Brunson has on the team when she walks from the sidelines to enter a drill or scrimmage.
Much has been made of the jump in scoring the Lynx have had during the win streak, with a league-best 107.9 offensive rating in that time. But, to Reeve, it’s the defense; the Lynx have a league-best 93.1 defensive rating the past five games. Not having to take the ball out of the net every time helps the offense.
And Brunson, Reeve said, is perhaps most responsible for the improvement on the defensive end.
“I go back to that week of practice we had, the opportunity we had to come in and work on things, talk with each other about what has made us successful,” Brunson said of the week off between games after a 3-6 start. “Nobody had to be anything special. We just had to be ourselves.”
For Moore and Fowles, that’s scoring. For Brunson, it’s defending.
Just look at the past five games. Brunson has covered skill forwards and power forwards, and centers. She can switch off onto shooting guards. During the current winning streak, she has averaged 8.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists. She is a plus-24 in those games. The players she was primarily responsible for? A 10.8 scoring average and a collective minus-74.
This is not news. As Reeve likes to point out, Brunson isn’t the only player in history with five WNBA championship rings for nothing. She has always done the heavy lifting that goes with defending and rebounding for great teams. She enters Friday’s game with Atlanta at Target Center third all-time in rebounds in league history with 3,284. She is 23 rebounds shy of No. 2 Lisa Leslie and 32 of Tamika Catchings.
“There needs to be an award, and it needs to be named after her, for the league,” Reeve said. “I don’t know if there is a more underrated player in terms of doing what it takes to win games.”