July 27, 2022 

Takeaways from the second-ever Commissioner’s Cup championship

Chicago and Las Vegas are primed for the postseason after in-season bout

CHICAGO — It may be the middle of the season, but the second-ever Commissioner’s Cup Championship had a playoff atmosphere.

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In front of 8,900 fans, the Chicago Sky and Las Vegas Aces battled throughout the night, which ended with the Aces taking home the $500,000 prize money, edging out the Sky 93-83. In addition, Chelsea Gray took home the Commissioner’s Cup MVP trophy, which may or may not have been bigger than the one her teammate Kelsey Plum received when she won All-Star game MVP.

The intensity throughout the Commissioner’s Cup game could be felt all the way to the 200 level at Wintrust Arena. Becky Hammon set the tone early on at the pregame press conference, where her laconic, fiery answers gave the media a glimpse of what was to come on the court. Both teams had been saying for weeks how important it was to win the game (and the prize money) and that this wasn’t a mere exhibition. The anticipation around the matchup and what could be a finals matchup this year came to fruition last night. Here are some takeaways from the Commissioner’s Cup game.

The WNBA did a good job reintroducing the Cup to fans

Last year, very few people understood the significance of the event when it was first rolled out. There were times when WNBA Twitter influencers and various media members would remind people when certain cup play games would commence in 2021. The general interest lagged because of how poorly the messaging was done around it.

This year, the league stepped up by making it easier to digest and understand throughout the season. The regular season schedule included the Commissioner’s Cup trophy icon next to each game that was a part of cup play. There was a section dedicated to explaining the format, what was at stake for the players and laying out what charities would benefit from each team potentially winning the championship. Fans who spoke with The Next yesterday seemed pleased with the upgrade in marketing.

“I actually followed along with it this year because it was laid out for us, unlike last year,” one spectator said. “I didn’t know there was money involved last year. I want them to get paid more than they do now and this was a fun game.”

This event will only get easier to understand as its familiarity among the fans increases yearly. The league did its job ensuring people had access to the resources they needed to fully enjoy the experience.

The Aces are built for the playoffs more than the regular season

This isn’t a shocking takeaway if you have followed the WNBA at all this season. With the playoffs around the corner though, the Aces’ identity playing their starters over 30 minutes per game was more pronounced last night. Outside of Dearica Hamby, who played just under 23 minutes, each starter was over 32 minutes again. This is a formula that is dangerous for a 36-game slate but is common practice once the playoffs come around — which are less than three weeks away.

What Las Vegas is doing this year is comparable to what the 2021 Sky did in last year’s playoffs. The Aces are currently last in the WNBA with 12.5 bench points per game and, at one point, were the only team in the league averaging under double-digits in that category. Their starting group has played 494 minutes together, which is 184 more than the next five-person in the league (310 minutes-Seattle). Like most coaches do in the playoffs, Wade shortens his rotation to seven players. Chicago’s starting group played 161 minutes in the 2021 postseason. Every other five-person lineup he used logged less than 38 minutes.

It’s not ideal to have limited options coming off the bench when things go south, but the Aces are built to power through it. Last night showed they can hang with the league’s top team in the Sky and their shortcomings, 7-11 in their rotation, might not be a problem come playoff time. Chicago has the deepest bench in the WNBA and has the upper hand in deploying different personnel to attack opponents’ weaknesses. However, if Las Vegas can get through the rest of the regular season and play more consistently on the defensive end, they will be ready for the moment.

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“There’s a lot of basketball to be played between now and then,” Hammon said when asked about her team potentially making the Finals. “I think Seattle probably has something to say about that. Connecticut, Washington. It’s a game; we’re happy to win it, obviously. But it’s not the ultimate goal. It’s a nice little thing and I want the girls to remember how it feels. I want them to remember how we got here, which is together and playing with each other.”

Chicago is still searching for a complete, 40-minute performance

Even as they look down at the rest of the league in the standings, the Sky maintain they have yet to play their best basketball this season. This group has been able to rally back when trailing in games and stave off comeback bids from their opponents, but that’s not a sustainable lifestyle for any team. That sentiment was felt last night when the Aces started off the game on a 25-4 run. Chicago lessened the deficit to seven points in the third quarter but ended up falling short.

Allie Quigley discussed what a complete game from the Sky would look like during the team’s shootaround availability on July 25.

“I think it’s winning every quarter,” Quigley said. “Even if you’re winning every quarter by two or three or five points, you are going to have a comfortable lead. Most of the time this year, we have played a good 28 or 30 minutes, which has been good enough to win a game, but when you play really good teams and get to the playoffs, you can’t just play (well) that amount of time.”

This team has very few concerns heading into the season’s final stretch. The Sky scored 83 points despite going 6-for-30 from beyond the arc against the Aces. Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot, who made her return to the lineup after getting a concussion on July 14 vs. the Sparks, had off games. Emma Meesseman played less than 23 minutes. If they shot 30% from deep yesterday, the conversation around the team would be completely different today. There’s only nine games left for the Sky to take their game to another level, but any cause for concern should face the rebuttal that this team is still 21-7 and has been outscored by only 27 points in seven losses this year.

The Aces showed Chicago has some vulnerabilities, but the Sky isn’t falling by any means. They just need to show they can play 40 minutes of consistent basketball.

Written by James Kay

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