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Commissioner’s Cup Preview Part I: Connecticut Sun are gritty and confident

Jonquel Jones, DeWanna Bonner, Brionna Jones and Curt Miller explain why the Connecticut Sun have a good shot at beating the Seattle Storm and winning the first-ever Commissioner’s Cup.

Connecticut Sun v Washington Mystics
The Connecticut Sun will be ready for the Seattle Storm.
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The Connecticut Sun and Seattle Storm meet in the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup championship game in Phoenix on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET (Amazon Prime). Ahead of this historic event, we provide you with a preview for both sides, starting with this one for the Sun.

The Connecticut Sun could be considered the underdogs in the Commissioner’s Cup championship game, but if that’s so, it’s not by much.

The Sun actually had the best record of any team in the East or West in the Commissioner’s Cup standings at 9-1, while the Storm were 8-2. And, as Connecticut head coach Curt Miller pointed out on Monday, the Sun are one overtime loss to the Storm removed from being a half a game ahead of both the Storm and the Las Vegas Aces for first place in the regular WNBA standings.

DisrespeCTed to begin the season, the Sun have proven a lot of people wrong by going 14-6 and becoming one of the three frontrunners in the league without superstar Alyssa Thomas, who is out for the season with a torn Achilles.

“We know that we can play with them,” Sun MVP candidate Jonquel Jones said of the upcoming championship game against Seattle. “We know that they’re a really good team and we have a lot of respect for them. But we also understand what we’re capable of bringing to the table and what we’re able to do. So we expect to win and we expect to go out and just play really good basketball.”

The reason Seattle might be considered the favorite is because it came into the season with higher expectations and it is the defending WNBA champion. Not only that, but it has won two championships in three years and has the best big three in the game right now: Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird (all 2021 Olympic gold medalists with Team USA).

Because they won that overtime game against the Sun in Everett, Wash. on May 25, the Storm (16-5) are in first place in the WNBA, a game ahead of the Aces and a game and a half ahead of the Sun. They later beat Connecticut 89-66 in the second and final regular season meeting between the two teams on June 13 in Uncasville, Conn.

“That last game they beat us pretty bad,” said Sun All-Star DeWanna Bonner. “So we watched that video and hopefully we can come out and do a little something better. ... It was our first game losing JJ (to a EuroBasket commitment) so we had to adjust a little bit. But that was no excuse because I just think we didn't play with the best intensity and the best fire like we always do, especially on the defensive end.”

“Certainly I never question our effort,” Miller said of the June 13th loss. “Our group plays hard. They jumped on us, all credit to Seattle in that game. Trying to play without JJ that first time, we had to play with different lineups. We started DiJonai (Carrington) in that game, her first career start. So there were a lot of things that we were trying and we got outplayed that night, hats off to Seattle. We don’t normally get beat at home, let alone beat the way we were.”

In addition to J. Jones missing the June 13th game, Miller actually missed the May 25th game after being suspended for a comment about Aces center Liz Cambage’s weight. Miller has since apologized and the two have since made up. Star defensive guard Briann January also missed the May 25th game.

“We haven’t played Seattle this year at full strength,” Miller said “So we’re excited about going into this matchup to see where we’re at and play with a full hand.”

As Miller pointed out, both his team and Seattle rely heavily on three stars for offensive production. The difference is that two of those stars for Seattle (Loyd and Bird) are backcourt players. Connecticut is all about the frontcourt of J. Jones, Bonner and a third All-Star in Brionna Jones.

“It’s interesting that we’re wired the same way,” Miller said. “When you look at their big three, Bird, Stewie and Loyd, they play the most minutes. They take the most shot attempts. ... They play through them and there’s an intent to play through them. And then you have other players, (Katie Lou) Samuelson and (Stephanie) Talbot shooting tremendously. (Mercedes) Russell and Ezi (Magbegor), a great two-headed center monster. And so they complement so well.

We’re built the same way. We play through our 3, 4, 5. So we play through DeWanna, JJ and Bri Jones. ... Just like their significant other talented players, not enough gets talked about how unselfish and how much Jasmine Thomas and Bri January expend at the defensive end. If Bri January’s not First Team All-Defensive this year, then I don’t know what else she has to do. She’s literally holding a lot of the All-Star 2-guards to single digits at times and just doing a tremendous job. And then there’s Jas — no one plays harder at the point guard position defensively than her in the league. They’re just unsung heroes. But there’s an intent with us that we have to play through our 3, 4, 5. JJ has to get touches. Bri Jones has to get touches. DeWanna has to get touches.”

Miller understands what he’s up against when it comes to Seattle’s big three.

“Bird dictates everything, she manipulates our defense, she manipulates the matchups,” he said. “She’s just the ultimate orchestrator. ... Loyd, arguably the best 2-guard in the world right now and just can score at so many different levels and then Stewie, what can you say?”

Stewart and J. Jones pretty much cancel each other out because both can score from anywhere and put the ball on the floor and create at 6’4”-plus. They are both MVP candidates for a reason.

Bonner can play a similar type of versatile offensive game, while Loyd and Bird will do what they do in the backcourt.

However, the Sun do have an advantage with B. Jones’ inside scoring ability being better than that of Russell and Magbegor. She averages 15 points per game, while Russell and Magbegor combine to average just 11.5.

“It’s always a tough battle when we play Seattle and we know we have to keep Stewie in check as much as we can,” B. Jones said. “And then it’s gonna be my job to work on Ezi and Mercedes and keep them out of the paint, keep them off the glass. But they’re gonna have to guard us too. We’re gonna go right back at them just as hard as they’re gonna come at us. So I think we’re ready in that way. ... I’m looking forward to this matchup in the paint.”

One big factor that everyone is talking about is the rest vs. rust debate. The Sun will be more rested than the Storm, who in addition to their three American Olympians had Talbot and Magbegor playing for Australia. But Connecticut could also be more rusty.

“We’ve gotta get the cobwebs out,” Miller said. “We haven’t played a game in five weeks. That’s the benefit of Stewie, Bird and Loyd, they’ve played games throughout this whole stretch even while they may not be back with their core group practicing. As hard as we’ve practiced and as much as we’ve now added the guys practice squad like the rest of the league has, there’s no substitute for games.”

Remember that there is $30,000 per player on the line for this game. The losing team’s players will only get $10,000. The MVP of the game will get an extra $5,000.

“The money is great, especially for the rookies,” Bonner said. “Being in the first one and having a chance to win that is just huge. It would forever go down in history.”

“How often in 2021 do you get to say that you’re doing something for the first time?” Jones asked. “We get to come in and say potentially that we’re the first Commissioner’s Cup-winning team. So it’s a huge honor and we understand that and we understand that it’s a great step for our team in the direction of a WNBA championship.”

So we know the Sun have a good chance to win. But what’s it really going to take to get the job done? Miller says it could come down to pace.

“If we can keep them under 75, I like our record at 11-1,” he said. “I like the fact that they've only won two games (2-2) when they've scored less than 80 points.”