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Minnesota veteran Rebekkah Brunson reinvents her game

Rebekkah Brunson, a four-time WNBA champion, has long been known as a rebounding stalwart, but this season, she added a 3-point shot to her game. Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Fans were starting to file into the Xcel Energy Center about an hour before a recent Lynx game when Rebekkah Brunson and assistant coach Walt Hopkins began their ritual.

Most players had finished their early warm-ups, but Brunson launched 3-pointers from the left wing. Hopkins, five inches taller than the 6-foot-2 Brunson, lunged at her, pretending to be a late-arriving defender. It's a drill they often repeat at practice.

"That's our thing," Brunson said.

Hopkins kept changing his move, sometimes jumping or occasionally swiping a hand past Brunson's eyes. All to prepare her for what she might face in a game.

Early in the first quarter that night against Seattle, Brunson took a pass from guard Jia Perkins and swished a 3-pointer from the exact spot where she put up shots over Hopkins earlier.

Brunson went on to score 20 points and grab six rebounds in Minnesota's 93-82 victory. She also sank two 3-pointers in five attempts -- as many as she took the previous two seasons combined -- while shooting 9-for-15 overall.

Long respected as a premier rebounder and defender, this season Brunson added a 3-point element. It followed a request from Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve, who needed Brunson, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen to expand their range to pull defenders from center Sylvia Fowles. Before this season, Brunson attempted only 12 3-pointers in 13 years, making two. This season she put up 66 and sank 23, good for 34.8 percent accuracy from beyond the arc.

The Lynx's 3-point effectiveness will be one of the keys in the WNBA Finals, which open Sunday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET) at Williams Arena when Minnesota hosts Los Angeles -- the same Sparks who denied the Lynx back-to-back titles in a memorable five-game series last year.

Improved 3-point shooting allowed league MVP Fowles to operate more freely in the low post. This season the Lynx took more 3-pointers than in any season since Reeve's first with the Lynx in 2010, hoisting 16.1 attempts per game, up significantly over last year (11.9). Led by Augustus (43.2 percent accuracy beyond the arc) and Maya Moore (41.1 percent), the Lynx ranked second in the league to Chicago with 37.0 percent shooting from 3-point range.

Brunson has worked on her perimeter game for years, originally with former assistant coach Jim Petersen. But going from an occasional midrange jump-shooter to this? That's hard to do. Now, Reeve says, Brunson's "shot selection is whatever she decides it is."

Until slowed by a sprained ankle, Brunson was hitting more than 40 percent beyond the arc. That put her among the league's top 10, ahead of such perimeter luminaries as Diana Taurasi and Kristi Toliver. Along the way Brunson earned her fourth WNBA All-Star Game selection, her first since 2013.

"Jim really set the foundation," Brunson said. "What we were doing before Walt came has allowed me to kind of develop this shot. It didn't just happen like that. It took years of the work that me and Jim were putting in to get it ready, and then some fine-tuning here with Walt. He's great. He's giving me looks Jim didn't, kind of changing it up a little bit."

The Lynx got off to franchise-best 20-2 start before things unraveled when Whalen broke a bone in her left hand, missing the final 12 games of the regular season. Brunson also sat out four with a left ankle sprain. Minnesota rallied to win its final three regular-season games to secure the overall No. 1 seed. Brunson made only 1-of-6 3-point attempts after returning, and 1-of-4 in the three-game semifinal sweep of Washington.

"Adding the stretch-4 element to her game elevated our team," Moore said. "Her stretching the defense allows Syl to work inside, and me to cut. It's been really fun to watch the evolution of her game. Though she's got four [championship] rings, she's still trying to find ways to get better."

Since coming to the WNBA from Georgetown in 2004, Brunson established herself as an unselfish grinder willing to do the gritty stuff: rebounding, defending, setting screens, mixing it up inside. Every championship team needs players like Brunson, the WNBA's career leader in offensive rebounds and the only non-Houston Comet with four titles (2005 with Sacramento, then 2011, '13 and '15 with the Lynx). This season she averaged 10.2 points and 6.7 rebounds, the latter second to Fowles on the Lynx and 14th in the league.

Personal growth is important to Brunson. With Petersen's help she added a midrange jumper in 2012, and by the following season extended her range to 20 feet. Brunson was already working on her 3-point shot when Petersen, the 6-10 former NBA power forward, left the Lynx last winter.

"In terms of her shooting and movement, she worked her butt off in the offseason," Hopkins said. "We haven't made a ton of adjustments to her. It's just been keeping her mentally ready to take shots."

Before Brunson departed for a two-month playing stint in Turkey this past offseason, she joined several teammates for tailored workouts with skills instructor Ganon Baker. And at training camp, she enlisted Hopkins to help.

Along the way, Brunson had to develop a shooter's mentality: the confidence to keep putting them up even when the shots aren't falling. That runs counter to everything Brunson believes. Miss a few shots? I'm hurting the team. Better stop, do what I do best and leave scoring to the scorers.

"That's something I'm still kind of getting used to," she said. "I think that's a huge adjustment, though, to keep shooting the ball, especially when I'm surrounded by so many great players who can knock shots down or can score for us.

"It's been really fun to watch the evolution of her game. Though she's got four [championship] rings, she's still trying to find ways to get better."

Maya Moore on teammate Rebekkah Brunson

So Hopkins, Reeve, the rest of the coaches and especially Brunson's teammates encourage her to keep cranking.

"For her, the biggest thing I think as a staff we've tried to focus on is keeping her mindset right," Hopkins said. "The physical part of it, she did that on her own. She worked so hard."

To Hopkins, the attempts are as important as the makes. If Brunson stops shooting, her defender is free to double-team Fowles or clog the middle. Then the offense stagnates.

"The hardest part about converting from somebody who doesn't shoot 3s to someone who does, is learning you have to shoot through misses," Hopkins said. "Just because you missed two shots, you can still make the next two. You might miss four, but you're still a shooter. You watch Diana Taurasi, she can go 0-for-9 with three air balls and she's not going to stop shooting."

Brunson is so non-showy that it's hard to imagine her pulling a Taurasi, holding a flicked wrist high as a 3-pointer sails through the net.

"I'm not right there yet, but you never know," she said with a laugh. "Sometimes things just happen. So I can't say no to that."