Inside the W With Michelle Smith: Inaugural Commissioner’s Cup Preview

In Thursday night’s first-ever WNBA Commissioner’s Cup championship game, what will the Seattle Storm and the Connecticut Sun be playing for:

  1. Pride
  2. Money
  3. To be first
  4. To set a tone
  5. All of the above.

Choosing No. 5 seems like the safe answer here, as the two teams collide in Phoenix to battle for the Commissioner’s Cup trophy that will mark the end of the WNBA’s first competition within the regular season.

The Commissioner’s Cup was created as part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement to offer a chance for the players to compete for $500,000 in prize pool money. Each team in the first half of the season played 10 games to determine the East-West representatives in this game. The teams with the best records in each conference – Connecticut and Seattle – moved on to the championship.

This game will mark the start of the second half of the season following the Olympic break, as well as a start of a new WNBA tradition.

“I think players really started to see the advantages of a hyped-up first half and the importance of those games,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.

Let’s take a closer look at the matchup.

EVERETT, WA – MAY 15: Breanna Stewart #30 of the Seattle Storm handles the ball against Jonquel Jones #35 of the Connecticut Sun during the game on May 25, 2021 at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, WA. (Photo by Joshua Huston/NBAE via Getty Images)

Overall record/Commissioner’s Cup games: Seattle 16-5/8-2 and Connecticut 14-6/9-1

Last we left them: Seattle finished play before the break with the best record in the league and seven wins in their last 10 games. Connecticut, sitting in the No. 3 spot overall and a half-game behind Las Vegas, had won two in a row heading into the break and six of seven.

Season series to date: Storm up 2-0. Seattle wins 90-87 in OT on May 25 with an 8-0 run to open overtime and 21 points from Sue Bird; Seattle won its second, 89-66, on June 13 with a 45.5 percent performance from 3-point range. They don’t meet again for the rest of the regular season.

Most telling moment: In the June 13 game, which Seattle won handily, the Sun played without Jonquel Jones, who was competing in the EuroBasket Tournament with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Jones, who has scored in double figures in every game this season, has collected 10 double-doubles and is the league’s leading rebounder with 11.1 per game. She missed a total of five games during that stretch.

She is averaging a career best 21.0 points a game to go with those 11.1 rebounds and is a front-running candidate for Most Valuable Player. To say Connecticut missed her in that June 13 game would be an understatement.

PHOENIX, AZ – AUGUST 11: Jonquel Jones #35 of the Connecticut Sun looks on during the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup practice on August 11, 2021 at Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 3 things Seattle must do: 

  1. Limit Jonquel Jones. Hardly anyone in the league can do it. In their first matchup, Jones went for 28 points and 13 rebounds along with three assists and three steals and the Storm barely came away with a three-point overtime win. Defensively, that work will belong to both Breanna Stewart and Mercedes Russell.
  2. Rekindle the offense. The Storm are one of the best offensive teams in the league on a consistent basis – ranking second in scoring this season (86.4 ppg) behind Las Vegas, but they will have had just a couple of practices as a team over the past five weeks heading into this game. Will they find their rhythm quickly against the Sun?
  3. Find the energy. Five Storm players – Stewart, Bird, Jewell Loyd, Stephanie Talbot and Ezi Magbegor – have returned in the last few days from Tokyo. They may still be getting their time zone straight as they board a plane to Phoenix and prepare mentally for a five-game road trip following this game. Players like Jordin Canada and Katie Lou Samuelson and Epiphanny Prince will need to bring some energy here.

3 things Connecticut must do:

  1. Capitalize on its fresh legs. Connecticut has had its full roster together for a two-week training camp coming out of the Olympic break. Their players had a chance to rest and rejuvenate and that may make a huge difference in this game, just five days after the end of the Olympic tournament.
  2. Keep Seattle under 80 points. This one comes from Coach Miller himself. Holding the Storm well under its season average would definitely put Connecticut in a position to win this game. A good way to do that for the league’s top rebounding team is to dominate the boards.
  3. Limit turnovers and points in the paint. The Sun also allow only 29.3 points in the paint per game, a league best, thanks to the interior play of the Joneses – Jonquel and Brionna. And they only allow opponents to score 13.2 points a game off turnovers. Those are really good places to start against one of the league’s best teams.

X-factor: The neutral floor. In Phoenix, neither team will have the energy of their home crowd. Who is going to need it more?

Unlikely hero: For Seattle it might just be Katie Lou Samuelson, whose COVID diagnosis knocked her out of the 3×3 tournament right before she departed for Tokyo. She will want to get back on the floor badly and make up for lost time. For Connecticut, it might be Natisha Hiedeman, who has had a stellar season in her role off the bench, averaging 8.2 points per game.

LAS VEGAS, NV – JUNE 27: Katie Lou Samuelson #33 of the Seattle Storm celebrates during the game against the Las Vegas Aces on June 27, 2021 at Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images)

What they are saying:

“Maybe they have the pressure on them because they are the defending champs and they have a reputation to uphold.” – Connecticut’s DeWanna Bonner

“(The prize money) became a talking point in our locker room, as we got off to a good start. It was a part of every conversation.” – Connecticut head coach Curt Miller

“There’s a game to be played and a game to be won. That’s how we are approaching it.” – Seattle head coach Noelle Quinn

“We have respect for them. But we know what we are capable of bringing to the table and we expect to win.” – Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones

“We are locked in with what we got because we want to be able to step up and take responsibility for this game if we need to. You never know how much we are all going to have to play because we can’t just count on Stewie, Sue and Jewell to save the day. They very well could, but we want to be able to help them out as much as we can and let them know that we got their backs.” – Seattle’s Katie Lou Samuelson

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.