Storm, Sun coming into Commissioner's Cup off different Olympic breaks
The inaugural Commissioner's Cup tips Thursday night, serving as the celebratory restart for the WNBA's 25th anniversary season, and it's oozing with intriguing storylines.
The first-ever in-season championship features the Eastern Conference's Connecticut Sun (14-6), a squad that's been able to have a second training camp during the monthlong Olympic break, and the Western Conference's Seattle Storm (16-5). Five of the Storm's players have been a tad busy overseas at the Olympics, where Team USA won its seventh consecutive gold.
"[There's] so much that's going into this game," Storm head coach Noelle Quinn said on a Zoom call Monday. "Obviously, the money is the big thing for the players [and] the pride of winning, obviously being the first, the inaugural Commissioner's Cup. And so there's a lot of fanfare around that, a lot of hype around that and I think for us, it's a game. A game to be played, a game to be won. And if you know the competitors that we have, we want to go in feeling good, feeling prepared, feeling ready."
If you're still curious what exactly this new feature is, Yahoo Sports has you covered with a quick recap and description from commissioner Cathy Engelbert, Storm veteran Sue Bird, two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne and Dream co-owner Renee Montgomery. All set on the specifics? Read on for more on the Sun, Storm and what to expect in their third meeting of the season.
What is the Commissioner's Cup?
The WNBA launched its inaugural Commissioner's Cup for the 25th anniversary season after it became untenable to start in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was instituted out of the recent collective bargaining agreement.
Each team played 10 games inside its conference designated as Commissioner's Cup games. It was the first home and away game a team played against each of its five conference opponents. In addition to being an opportunity to pay players more, it also boosted conference rivalries after the league transitioned away from a conference-based playoff structure.
The prize pool is a cool $500,000. The winning team's players will make at least $30,000 — more than half of what players on four-year rookie contracts make in an entire season. Players on the losing team will pocket $10,000 each, and the game's MVP will receive an additional $5,000.
"I feel like it's motivation for everybody," Connecticut's Jonquel Jones said on a Zoom call Monday. "All of us work hard. Everybody wants to kind of walk away with a championship and walk away with that extra amount of cash. Definitely for [the rookies] it's a huge opportunity financially and a huge opportunity for our team, so it's going to be good."
The game is being aired on Amazon Prime Video (Thursday, 9 p.m. ET), a new media partner of the WNBA this season. It will launch the second half of the season, which begins Sunday.
Who's playing? Eastern Conference: Connecticut Sun
The Sun cruised into the Commissioner's Cup contest even with 6-foot-6 center and 3-point contest extraordinaire Jones missing time. They dropped only one game, to the Chicago Sky, out of 10 contests and finished with a +122 point differential. The Sky (6-4) were the only team on the winning side of the Cup standings and the only other Eastern team with a positive differential (+33).
Jones is solidly in the lead for MVP consideration (+150 at BetMGM) sitting at second in scoring (21 PPG) and first in rebounds (11.1 RPG). The "Mother of Dragons" is coming off a monstrous showing at the All-Star Game.
DeWanna Bonner (15.8 PPG, 7 RPG) and Brionna Jones (15 PPG, 6.9 RPG) were also named All-Stars.
Who's playing? Western Conference: Seattle Storm
It was a tighter competition in the Western Conference, where the two 2020 WNBA Finals teams play. The Storm (8-2, +57) edged out the Minnesota Lynx (7-3, +52) and Las Vegas Aces (6-4, +50).
Breanna Stewart, the 2018 MVP and two-time Finals MVP, is also in contention for this year's award (+200). She's third in scoring (20.6 PPG), fifth in rebounds (9.6 RPG), tied for third in blocks (1.7 BPG), and first in win shares (4.3). Five-time Olympic gold medalist Sue Bird ranks fifth in assists per game (5.5) while scoring 10.9 PPG. Jewell Loyd (17.5 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 4.2 APG) was also away winning gold with USA.
Previous matchups: Sun vs. Storm
May 25: Storm 90, Sun 87 (OT)
Seattle went on a 8-0 run to open overtime and hand the Sun their first loss of the season.
Bird scored 21; Loyd had 19 points, eight rebounds, five assists and three steals; and Stewart had a double-double of 17 points and 12 rebounds.
Jonquel Jones put up a fifth consecutive double-double with 28 points, 13 rebounds, three steals and three blocks. Brionna Jones scored 19 and Bonner had 15. The Sun were without Curt Miller, who was suspended after comments about Liz Cambage.
June 13: Storm 89, Sun 66
Stewart (22 points, nine rebounds, five assists) led the Storm to a win in Connecticut while Jonquel Jones was at EuroBasket with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Seattle shot 45.5% (10-for-22) from 3-point range.
Miller noted to reporters on Monday that the Sun haven't been full strength in either contest.
"We're excited about going into this matchup to see where we're at and go in with a full deck, a full hand," he said.
What should we expect?
The Sun (14-6) and Storm (16-5) are coming out of the Olympic pause on two opposite sides of the break equation. The Sun were able to hold a second training camp, in the words of Miller, with everyone in the home market the last two weeks whereas the Storm had barely anyone in town since five players were competing in the Olympics. A sixth, Katie Lou Samuelson, was expected to play on the inaugural 3x3 team but contracted COVID-19 days before leaving.
Each team could have the advantage because of that scenario over the past few weeks. It could also be a problem.
The Sun are at full strength and rested. They enjoyed vacations, reset for the final push of the season and practiced as a collective. Bonner and Jonquel Jones told media on Monday it was nice to get away, and the team came back rejuvenated. That month off could be helpful in a conditioning sense.
"We can probably get up and down the court a little bit quicker than them," Jonquel Jones said. "[We'll] try to work them really early to see how tired they are. [It's] definitely an advantage and something that we will try to use."
But they haven't played a competitive game in five weeks and "there's no substitute for games," Miller said, adding "we have to get the cobwebs off" and settle in. That could be a problem against Seattle, which comes out fast in the first and third quarters.
That the Storm's starters spent the last few weeks playing highly competitive games could be its own benefit since those players won't need to shake off any rust (but should maybe shake off the celebration). Quinn also noted to reporters on Monday that those who were in Storm camp were able to practice and build their own chemistry in reps together, a huge benefit if the Olympians play limited minutes on Thursday.
"The idea that there is going to be a conditioning factor isn't going to necessarily affect our Olympians more so than a jelling and a chemistry factor understanding that our group has been working on certain things and improving on certain things and ready to go," Quinn told reporters. "I'm hoping that that is seamless. There's very much this reality that the play may not look great the first few possessions because of the time that we've had off and we have to get back in a groove and a rhythm.
"But when you have three Olympians and you have the best leader in the world in Sue [Bird], best players in the world, it allows me as a coach to kind of just take a step back and let's see how we can jell and let's put this thing together in this one game."
Stewart, Loyd and Bird landed Monday. Quinn said the plan was to get them into practices Wednesday and gear them up for the Cup game. She also noted that while the Cup game is important from a financial and competitive standpoint, it doesn't count in the standings and that allows these two teams some grace in getting back into the groove of the season.
Second-half action begins Sunday with a full slate of games beginning with the Storm and the Chicago Sky at 4 p.m. ET on ABC.
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