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The Commissioner’s Cup Championship Recap: All the Aces are Aligned

In a raucous game that ended with the Las Vegas Aces taking home the Commissioner’s Cup trophy and prize pool (Kelsey Plum also received another trophy, lol), basketball fans were entertained from start to finish as the Aces ousted the Chicago Sky 93-83.

Aces players earned $30,000 per player, taking home the winner’s prize pool. Sky players earned $10,000 each as runners-up in the Commissioner Cup. The Aces selected a foundation they played for all season, and the ACLU of Nevada will receive $28,500. My Block, My Hood, My City, the chosen non-profit for the Sky, will receive $23,500 in donations, with the WNBA making $165,000 in donations to the foundations and charities each team selected to represent and play for prior to Cup play.

Before diving into the game itself, I have to say that I love watching this Aces team be a team. It sounds simplistic, but they have a charisma that could be mistaken as fake if you only saw an interaction or two, but they’ve had that energy since media day. It’s infectious, it’s fun, I love it, and it’s part of what makes me love basketball. 

Seeing how that team went crazy for Chelsea Gray winning MVP gave me the biggest smile. They revel in one another’s accomplishments, boost one another up, and are a fun blend of personalities. Personality shines through in a game where only ten players are on the court at all times, and there’s no physical barrier between the hardwood and the bleachers.

This is not at all to say that Chicago doesn’t have a similar verve, but if you’ve watched even sparingly this year, you understand. Vegas has that “This is our year” type of vibe that persists in everything they do. Last night was an encapsulation of that.

Las Vegas came out of the gates on an absolute tear, ripping off a 25-4 run to start the game. The Aces played defense in a way we hadn’t seen for nearly a month, which was a breath of fresh air and a sigh of relief at the same time. When Las Vegas is active and forcing turnovers, they had four deflections in the opening two minutes by my count, and they’re setting up their offense to reach the historic heights they’ve flirted with all season.

A’ja Wilson had what I’d consider the best defensive performance I’ve ever seen from her last night. Six blocks, two steals, and what would be a career-high in rebounds (1) if the game counted like that; the Commissioner’s Cup Championship Game does not count towards official record books (Shout out to John’ Giggy’ Maxwell for that gem of knowledge). 

In 2022, we’ve seen only nine total performances before last night in which a player had four blocks or more as well as two steals or more; Wilson has three of those stat lines to her name, the only player to appear on that list more than once per Her Hoop Stats.

Eight combined steals and blocks were ridiculous and highlighted her activity, but the consistent intensity was impressive. Wilson was matched up with Emma Meesseman for most of the night, but not quite the way you’d expect. Much like we saw in the first matchup with the Sky earlier in the season, the Aces played more aggressively, opting to help off Meesseman and Candace Parker to try and deter dribble penetration. 

Parker made the Aces pay a bit for helping off of her, hitting three of her seven attempts from outside (half of the Sky’s total makes from deep), but the gamble on Meesseman paid dividends.

Meesseman is talented and skilled, capable of attacking out of the post, off of drives, and possessing great touch for someone her size. She moves the ball well, is an excellent passer, and makes quick decisions. Still, given that she’s a hesitant shooter from deep and has struggled with her efficiency from outside all season, the Aces felt comfortable leaning into helping off of her. They were more willing to allow Meesseman to catch and go or Parker to rise and fire than any of Chicago’s guards or wings to have baked in space to attack the rim. It was a worthwhile gamble for the most, something I’m curious to see as they match up once more this regular season and potentially in the playoffs.

Wilson made that coverage possible, and Dearica Hamby, Parker’s matchup, was also adept last night defensively, sliding all over the place to plug gaps.

I would’ve given Wilson the MVP award if it were up to me, but I can’t fault giving it to Chelsea Gray, who took home the MVP trophy and $5,000 in prize money. 

We’ve seen the Aces’ offense get stuck in the mud at times in the half-court, and last night there were some moments of rough sledding, but Gray hit an absurd array of tough jumpers that were self-created. Middies going left with a hand in her face, a turnaround fader, a pull-up three in the left slot leaning towards the baseline; Gray was magic as a shot creator. After that first floodgate run from Las Vegas, Chicago’s defense tightened up, particularly in the second half, and Gray made it just not matter. 

As a side note, I found this game very encouraging if you’re an Aces hopeful. While the offense did sludge at times, it was more because of the Sky honing in rather than offensive stagnancy. The process was better. There was a ton of drive-kick, quick ball movement, and overall motion and flow in the offense. That hasn’t typically been the case past the first 8 seconds of the shot clock. Even if the paint touches weren’t prolific, there was a lot of quicker movement that loosened the defense and crafted more open jumpers, and that’s all you can ask for in some of the highest-level matchups.

Kelsey Plum led the charge with an early offense, absolutely blazing the court in the first quarter and finishing with a game-high 24 points. She finished six of nine from deep, including three of her makes in the first two minutes; yeah, it was that kind of performance! If Plum gets the opportunity to step into her shot, it feels all but inevitably a swish.

Kahleah Copper made noise in the first quarter, scoring the first 9 points for the Sky, the only scorer on the board for Chicago across the first 8 minutes in-game. She and Jackie Young had an exceptional duel. Both bring an elite ability to attack off of drives in different ways; Copper has perhaps the best first step in the league (amongst wings, without a doubt), and Young has ridiculous power punches off the bounce. Copper got out in early offense and caught the defense in precarious positions for a few steps through, and one’s that were picturesque (listen to The Step Through, by the way!).

While Copper, Parker, and Meesseman combined 56 points on fairly efficient shooting, the Sky’s backcourt struggled to find a groove on offense. Courtney Vandersloot returned from concussion protocols for her first game in just under two weeks. She understandably wasn’t in a rhythm last night, as she and backcourt mate Allie Quigley went a combined 1-9 from three, missing open shots to be sure, but credit is assuredly due to the Aces’ pressure and concerted effort to make life hard on the Sky’s guards and tighten up their dribble drive game.

The Commissioner’s Cup Championship doesn’t count towards league record and standings, but it serves as an interesting lens for looking at the top of the league and a potential Finals matchup. The Sky and Aces are the top two teams in the standings, respectively, and still have one last game against one another on August 11th, the second to last regular season game for each team.

Las Vegas has a five-game road trip coming up, facing the Fever (twice), Mystics, Wings, and the Storm before closing out the last three games at home (Dream, Sky, Storm).

Chicago turns around to face the New York Liberty in Chi-Town, an opportunity to avenge their 83-80 loss after a hectic travel schedule. They then have a quick road trip to Uncasville, Connecticut, for a meeting with the Sun, then return for a four-game homestand (Wings, Mystics, Sun, Storm), and then close with a two-game road trip before the playoffs (Aces and Mercury).

As each team looks to fine-tune ahead of what both squads expect to be a deep playoff run, it’ll be interesting to keep up with their final few weeks of play. While we still have a good bit of time before the postseason is here, last night gave us a shining moment of what the primetime play holds, and that has me itching for the playoffs to be here now

WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on 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