MINNEAPOLIS – History was on the line Wednesday night inside the deafening confines of Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
After playing to a 2-2 series stalemate, the Sparks and Lynx were set for yet another epic, winner-take-all showdown. The two teams had been here before, 350 days ago to be exact. Last year, it was the Sparks who won the 2016 title in thrilling fashion on a last second shot from Nneka Ogwumike to win Game 5.
Now, the two squads found themselves in a similar position, but the 2017 Finals had even more potential history to be made from whoever would win the title.
A win for either team would tie them with the Houston Comets team that dominated the early part of the WNBA as the only teams with four titles to their name. Perhaps more impressive, with a win the Sparks would become the first team to win back-to-back titles since they did it in 2001-02 when L.A. was led by Lisa Leslie.
For one player on the court there was a possibility to hold a truly one-of-a-kind record. With a win, Rebekkah Brunson would be the first and only player in WNBA history with five titles to her name.
The now 35-year-old Brunson won her first title back in 2005 with the Sacramento Monarchs. She didn’t have to wait long for her first ring as the team who selected her 1oth overall saw her hoist the championship trophy just a year after she was drafted, winning her first championship at 24.
Eleven years later and with three more titles on her résumé, Brunson entered 2017’s Game 5 with no doubt about what she wanted to accomplish for not only herself, but for the Lynx franchise as a whole.
As the two teams tried to feel each other out early in the contest it was Brunson who calmly stepped into a catch and shoot jumper to open the scoring in this winner-take-all, high stakes showdown.
She never looked back from there. The wily veteran had a difficult start to the series but returned to her gritty yet efficient self in Game 4 with 18 points and 13 rebounds. When the final whistle blew Wednesday and the confetti started to fall Brunson’s 13 points and hard-fought eight rebounds played a pivotal role in the Lynx earning their fourth title in seven years, and Brunson laying claim to the most WNBA titles in league history.
“We’ve been here grinding it out all season,” Brunson said in the locker room, her number 32 jersey replaced by a WNBA Champions shirt doused in a heavy layer of freshly uncorked champagne. “Last year didn’t work out for us but we knew we’d be back here, we knew the entire regular season that we’d be here at the end and this is what we were working towards.”
It was a total team effort in this year’s Game 5 that led to the title returning to Minnesota. While all five Lynx starters scored in double figures it was often the team’s defense and in particular their ability to effectively rebound the basketball that proved to be the difference this year. A lot of the will to win that comes with grabbing boards emanated from Brunson who is often credited as being an emotional backbone to the Lynx.
“You’ve got Rebekkah Brunson, who just won her fifth ring, and she’s happy with the role that she had,” Maya Moore said postgame. “It’s unbelievable. She doesn’t necessarily get as much attention from the outside as we give her, but it’s just players like that, you know, who can just say, hey, I need more. But she just constantly gives and pours out.”
Leaving it all on the floor is something that Brunson has done time and time again for Minnesota no matter if it’s a regular season matinee or Game 5 of the WNBA Finals, she’s one player who will max herself out on both ends.
“We have amazing scorers on this team, but you know we have to do it on the defense end and tonight we did,” Bruson said. “We did everything we could, we needed everyone to rebound and everyone to leave everything that they had out there.”
As Brunson and Minnesota crept closer to their fifth and fourth titles respectively her impact on proceedings were felt in many ways not always reflected in the stat sheet. Whether it was bothering Candace Parker and disputing her rhythm, chasing down a lose ball or even just creating space on the floor for Sylvia Fowles to do her work in the paint, Brunson was in the mix of everything in Game 5. The now five-time champ left an indelible mark on the game and in turn the history books on Wednesday night.
“Rebecca is just — if you’re around our group, she’s the same every single day,” Coach Reeve said postgame. She works her tail off every single day. We all have shortcomings in our game. She has worked to kind of narrow the gap on her shortcomings, and shooting the ball all season long, getting the floor spaced for Syl.”
With the win, Minnesota can now be mentioned in the same breath as the legendary Houston Comets franchise that won four-straight titles during the WNBA’s inaugural years.
“Just to be mentioned in the conversation with the Comets is amazing, but I think we’re still here,” Brunson said. “We’re going to enjoy this for a little while and then see what the future holds. It hasn’t been easy, it’s been extremely difficult and we know how hard you have to work to get here.”
As Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” fittingly blasts in the champagne-soaked Lynx locker room, the always modest Brunson finally has time to take a breath and try to conceptualize that no one else that’s ever donned a WNBA jersey has more titles than her, she’s in a class all her own.
“It feels good, it means so much to be able to this with this women and this organization,” Brunson said through a grateful smile. “It’s so hard to get here it doesn’t just happen all the work you have to put in to continue to get here it’s just amazing I wouldn’t want to do it with anybody else.”
Going forward, the Lynx don’t appear to going anywhere but challenging for championships for the foreseeable future, and Brunson doesn’t give any indication that this fifth title will be her last one. “I hope so, unless ya’ll know something I don’t know,” Brunson jokingly said when asked about her plans for returning for what would be 15th season in 2018.
Brunson almost skips out of the locker room, champagne bottle in-hand, ready to celebrate her and her team’s record-setting and record-tying accomplishments. Is Brunson done adding titles to her name? It doesn’t look like it.
The WNBA’s all-time champion may have a a few more championship celebrations in her just yet.