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The Commissioner’s Cup Championship Preview: An Offensive Masterclass Awaits

The second annual WNBA Commissioner’s Cup Championship is on deck and set to tip off in just over a week between the Las Vegas Aces and Chicago Sky. The game will take place in Chicago at 8:30 pm Eastern time on July 26th, featured on Amazon Prime. Is this a potential look at the future W Finals matchup? Who’s to say!

Last year’s inauguration of the Commissioner’s Cup culminated in a Seattle Storm drubbing of the Connecticut Sun, but this game figures to be different. The Sky and Aces have split their regular season series 1-1, with one game remaining after the Cup Championship on August 11th. The first game back in May was an Aces win in a close game, but game two a few weeks ago included the greatest comeback in WNBA history as the Sky came back from down 28 to win 104-95.

That game was insane and I recommend watching it back, which you can do via WNBA League Pass!

Before we dive into the actual matchup, it’s important to point out the charity aspects of the game and the entire Commissioner’s Cup run-up. All 12 teams in the league chose a charity or foundation prior to the start of the season that they were going to support in Cup play. Each win counted for $2,000 in donations to their cause from the league and a loss was a guaranteed $500 from the league. 

Each team finished 9-1 in the final Commissioner’s Cup Cup standings, raising 18,500 dollars for their causes, and will be able to increase their donations in the Championship!

The winner of the Championship will receive $10,000 from the league towards their charity and the runner-up will receive $5,000, resulting in a grand total of $165,000 from the league towards the 12 foundations sponsored by each team which you can read up on here.

Chicago is supporting My Block. My Hood. My City. an organization focused on youth empowerment and community-building through a multitude of programs and volunteer opportunities. 

Las Vegas is supporting the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) of Nevada, which works to defend and uphold the Constitutional rights of all citizens of Nevada through public education, advocacy, and legal action.

The Aces have played better defense after the All-Star Break than they did in the few weeks leading up to it, needing the breather to reset. At their best, they play an active brand of defense, switching most actions, playing A’ja Wilson closer to the level of the screen, and relying on timely rotations and freneticism to force turnovers and pinch the paint. At their worst, well… yeah that loss to the Sky highlighted what it looks like when your entire five-player unit isn’t locked in.

The communication tailed off, and activity was still present, but rotations at 90% speed or with 90% of the right direction do more damage than the 10% fall-off would imply. Chicago is, by my money, the best collective passing squad in the WNBA. When they click as they did in the third quarter of that game, and as they have for many late runs this season, the ball singes the court with how quickly decisions are made and multiple actions are run.

If the Aces’ defense isn’t on, the Sky have the perfect offense to pick them apart. 

If the Aces’ offense starts to press their pace to the max, turnovers can ramp up, shots missed at the rim early in the shot clock tend to lead to odd advantages on the defensive end that result in negative point swings. Which half-court offense will show up? Las Vegas plays tremendous basketball, again, predicated on their ability to attack in transition and off turnovers. Things get dicier when things slow down. The flow, how the offense moves without sets, is frankly wonky more often than not.

Chelsea Gray has been their best clutch time (Last 5 minutes and the game within 5 points) performer. Per WNBA.com stats, Gray is scoring 1.7 points per game on 61.4% true-shooting. It’s a really interesting dichotomy, as the Aces have 5 starters who can all create to varying degrees with the ball in their hands. Jackie Young is ridiculously efficient and a remarkable scorer and contested shot-maker, but largely after attacking an already bent defense. A’ja Wilson and Dearica Hamby can attack out of post-ups or off of drives and Kelsey Plum is an elite pick and roll operator. Finding how that all mesh together against the best defenses when it gets muddy continues to be a storyline that keeps popping up. This game is a huge test for them on a national stage against a likely deep postseason opponent.

As a counterpoint, the Sky can also struggle with offensive stagnancy. Courtney Vandersloot is a tremendous driver, utilizing every square millimeter of the court to operate the offense and toy with defenses. Chicago runs much of their offense through Vandersloot pick and rolls and slot dribble hand-offs or split cut actions to get the most out of the playmaking of Candace Parker and Emma Meesseman, two of the best if not the very best playmaking forwards/bigs in basketball. Now, that’s not a bad thing! Having diverse playmaking is fantastic, but when so much of your playmaking can come from exterior positioning, relying on cutting, and the potential of ball movement to put pressure on the rim, a locked-in defense can sludge things up a bit. 

If the threat of Meesseman or Parker shooting isn’t imposing on the defense, the court can shrink. Both players can attack off the dribble and out of quick post-ups to be sure, but the spacing the defense affords is still the spacing the defense affords until they’re punished for doing so.

In that first matchup, the Aces looked to go under the majority of ball screens the Sky ran, negating screening actions and preventing dribble penetration more often than not.

Jackie Young goes under the first Vandersloot ball screen, and the ball kicks back to Parker who post entries to Meesseman, but she can’t establish a comfortable position on Wilson (her defense this year has been extraordinary). The ball kicks back out to a Parker handoff with Kahleah Copper that the Aces squeeze, not allowing for Parker to slip or roll to the basket and allowing Copper the shot off the dribble. Now, Copper is a good enough shooter that this is a real gamble (she went 2 of 5 from deep in the second game and is shooting 40.9% from deep this season), but in a single game where shooting variance can play a sizable part in the eventual outcome, this is significant.

Later in the game, under on the initial screen, and then an over from Young on Vandersloot with Hamby sliding as well and then recovering once Young is back in front and the action is halted. Again, Candace Parker is a good shooter (36.3% on the season), but this is enough of a worthwhile risk for the Aces to rely on, something I’d keep my eye on heading into this matchup. If the Sky shoots the lights out early, it’s much harder to keep up this coverage, and we’ll see both teams vary and junk things up defensively.

When Chicago hits their verve, their secondary actions are going on off the ball, there’s more motion and intuitive cutting, and the ball zings. It really didn’t in that game, and it was a while back to be fair, but the extra oomph to make the defense wasn’t there. In a battle of activity, the defense came out on top and I’m excited to see how this plays out in the Cup Championship. Allie Quigley’s utilization and movement within the offense could be an essential part of the chessboard in this game, shifting the defense with the threat of her shooting.

Riquna Williams and Azurá Stevens both bring additional excitement to this game. Williams has yet to play against the Sky this season and has brought a wealth of shotmaking off the bench for the Aces of late, something they’ve lacked throughout the season. Stevens was brilliant in the Sky victory last month, putting up 19 points and 7 rebounds, playing as a stretchy combo forward who can dice up opposing frontcourts with her off-the-dribble game. The number of players who can actually make defenses care from deep while being coordinated enough to attack closeouts at 6’6 is essentially a list of one: Stevens.

Look for Julie Allemand to have an impact as well. I need to see her with a more willing shot! She’s a really really good shooter and pick-and-roll playmaker, but she’s been pretty hesitant from deep this season. Let it fly. Her impact has still been positive for the Sky, but she’s leaving food on the table.

An important note as well about the game overall: there’s a $500,000 prize pool in this game! The winning team’s players will walk away with $30,000 plus and the runners-up will walk away with $10,000 for making it to the Cup Championship The game MVP will win an additional $5,000. This game would be competitive regardless of incentivization, but the prize money will undoubtedly make the journey that much sweeter for either team.

As we close in on the game and the final month of the season, tune into the remaining nationally televised ABC games! This season has been a wild ride, and the storylines wrapping up, yet still unfurling as the summer carries on, continue to make League Pass appointment viewing.

Newly hired WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on WNBA.com throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs