Brunson, Lynx' Bigs Lead the Way in Game One Win
MINNEAPOLIS, MINN. – Draw your eyes to the spot just to the right of the lane where Rebekkah Brunson stroked her final bank shot and blew a kiss to the Target Center crowd on Sunday night.
Now try to image those 15,000 seats empty, the building silent and dark.
Pretend it's pretty much her and the cleaning staff left in the building, like it was two months ago, when Rebekkah Brunson couldn’t trust her jumper.
“She was having problems with her shot, and it was getting into her head a little bit,” said Lynx assistant coach Jim Petersen. “She was having problems making free throws, and she made a decision that ‘I’m not gonna let this affect my team’s outcome.’”
On Sunday night, with the best Playoff game of her life (a career playoff-high 26 points, along with 11 rebounds), a season of extra work translated into the first-ever Finals win in the history of the Minnesota Lynx. As Minnesota dominated a size-deprived Atlanta team – center Erika de Souza’s been away from the team since the Conference Finals, but should return for Game 2 – on the boards and in the paint, Brunson led the charge.
“Rebekkah Brunson was about as key as you could get,” said Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve.
“You have games like this, you need X-Factors.”
Going into this series, the hype had gravitated to the guards. Seimone Augustus vs. Angel McCoughtry. Maya Moore vs. Armintie Price. Lindsay Whalen vs. Lindsey Harding. But on Sunday night in Minnesota, with a 40-28 edge in rebounding and a 52-30 advantage in points in the paint (where Minnesota shot 53 percent, compared to the Dream’s 36 percent, including a zero-point effort from Sancho Lyttle), the Lynx stole the game because their post players owned the paint.
“I’m really proud of our big girls,” Brunson said. “We work hard. We do it every night. [Our offense] might come from somewhere else, but we’re gonna continue to work.”
And in a game where the Lynx fell behind by as many as 12, willing but unable to keep up with the early pace of the three-guard Dream, she was the difference.
And she did it with a cold, no less. Although, that was nothing compared to McWilliams-Franklin’s virus, which had her “throwing up in the back,” Petersen said (but still couldn’t keep her off the court, as the 40-year-old McWilliams-Franklin played 30 minutes and pulled down 10 boards herself).
“I’m alright,” Brunson said after the game, before coughing.
Brunson grabbed the Lynx’ first offensive rebound with 7:27 left in the second quarter, which in turn led to Minnesota’s first free throws (she clanked the first, which was her only miss of the night). They’d finish with 10 and 18, respectively, with five of those offensive boards and seven of those free throws belonging to Brunson.
And while the Lynx guards struggled from the floor early – Moore, Augustus and Whalen went a combined 7-for-21 in the first half – Brunson gave them extra life.
“We just need to box her out and keep her off the boards,” said Dream forward Alison Bales. “That’s how she gets going.”
“She really stemmed the tide in a lot of ways,” Petersen said. “She got off to a great start and hit some key baskets. Her offensive rebounding was so key, and it extended possessions for us. She got the game ball tonight – she was the one who really carried us through a tough stretch.”
And it was tough.
The Dream dictated the pace early, getting 16 points from point guard Lindsey Harding and 10 points from fellow guard Izi Castro Marques in the first half, while Angel McCoughtry sat with foul trouble. Using the same attack that had worked so well against Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals – which Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve called “chaos” on Saturday – the Dream forced six Lynx turnovers, to just one of their own, in the first half.
“[Then] we just slowed down,” Augustus said.
The Lynx steadily started working the ball inside, and the Dream, in the end, had no answer. With Augustus finding her groove (after an 1-for-7 start, she finished 9-for-20), Atlanta started stepping out on the Lynx’ top scorer, which left Brunson wide open.
She scored nine points in the third quarter, including going 3-for-3 from the line. Then, in the fourth, she tacked on eight more, as the Lynx found a crack and just blew it open.
“They’re without de Souza, so it opened up a lot of the paint for us,” McWilliams-Franklin said. “And we took advantage of it. You take any advantage you can, whether it’s a player missing or an injury. It’s the same way they got into the Finals – Tamika Catchings got hurt, and you take advantage of it. They didn’t have de Souza, and we tried to make the most of it.”
“I think they were really worried about Seimone, Maya and the wings,” Brunson said. “We’ll look at the film, where the opportunities came from, and we’ll try to duplicate that next time.”
Not that Brunson spent the whole game mopping up the lane. As the game went on, her range got deeper and her shot, smoother. She hit from key. The baseline. From the wing, the elbow, the shoulder and all the other joints. And then, finally, that bank shot from the right side with a minute left to seal it all up.
“When our coaching staff got her on the perimeter a little bit and let her get into a comfort zone, that’s when she incorporated all parts of her game,” Petersen said. “She’s a beast on the low block. She’s a tremendous offensive rebounder. She’s great on the fast break, and now, a perimeter jumper. I call her the total package, because she can hurt you in so many ways.”
And we haven’t even touched on defense yet, where Brunson and the bigs effectively reduced Atlanta to four players on the court.
“If you look at the stats and what I did tonight, it was nothing,” said Lyttle, whose 0-point effort fell 10 points below her season average – and underscored just how much the Dream miss de Souza.
Against Indiana, a team that tips more toward post play than the Lynx normally do – and had to rely on it almost entirely with Catchings out of the lineup – the Dream could just run past the Fever. But against a Minnesota team that battled them inside and outside, they broke down, going scoreless for almost five minutes to open the fourth quarter.
Without de Souza -- Lyttle's teammate internationally, as well as in Atlanta – the Dream had a “pick-and-pop” combo with Lyttle and Bales, instead of the usual pick-and-roll tandem it has with de Souza and Lyttle, McWilliams-Franklin said. And while Bales had some success, hitting two long jumpers early and pulling down nine total rebounds, Lyttle suffered.
“We’ll just get a little bit bigger with E and hopefully we’ll get some more baskets on the inside,” Lyttle said. “They beat us in the paint, by 20 or so points. We can’t afford that. We gotta stop taking all those jump shots.”
Meanwhile, they’ll have to find a way to keep the Lynx from making theirs. And if Brunson keeps playing like this, the Dream could have trouble getting a stop even if de Souza’s allowed to bring her entire Brazilian National team with her.
“Tonight [I was the star],” Brunson said. “But tomorrow it could be Seimone. The next day it could be Maya. That’s what makes us a special group.”