The WNBA Commissioner’s Cup might as well be considered a precursor to the Finals, especially when it’s between the defending champion Chicago Sky and the equally high caliber Las Vegas Aces. As most would have expected, both teams went 9-1 in Commissioner’s Cup games to reach the point where they could play for $500,000 for their team with $30,000 being split for each player. This matchup consisted of not only the two best teams in the league but also the two most resilient teams.
As they entered their home court, the Sky’s hopes were dependent on not only the health of their sharpshooter Courtney Vandersloot, who was playing her first game since being out under concussion protocol, but on the overall energy of the team. Chicago just came off playing three games in four days, which included a loss to the New York Liberty on the road that ended their six-game winning streak. In the process, they encountered travel delays and even when there was suspicion of fatigue, they were within reach.
Furthermore, the Sky are a much different team than they were when they last played the Aces at home back in June. At that time, they weren’t in sync with each other and were still trying to adjust to the season. However, they have persevered through all the doubt and expectations to get to this position with the playoffs around the corner. Even as they have shown some vulnerability as of late, the Aces are in a similar predicament due to recent defensive struggles and an upcoming six-game road trip.
In addition, Vegas is the top scoring team in the league, averaging 90.4 points per game and an offensive rating of 108.3. Three of their starters are ranked in the top ten in scoring with Kelsey Plum averaging 20.1 points per game, A’jaWilson with 19.4, and Jackie Young with 16.3. Even as they were struggling prior to the All-Star break, losing three out of five games, they have won five out of six since.
The stage was set to see which side could get back in transition, utilize their depth, move the ball around, play pressure defense, make good shots, and simply play their game.
From the start, the Aces jumped out quickly to a 13-0 lead with Plum scoring nine points within the first two minutes of the game. The Sky had two turnovers due to sloppy possessions and looked out of sorts at both ends of the floor, which included leaving Plum wide open. Not at all the way to start a critical game.
At the 7:40 mark, Kahleah Copper dished out an epic fake to Wilson as she took it to the hole for the Sky’s first basket. But at the 6:30 mark, Wilson dished it right back with a three to make it 16-2. At 6:15, Copper took to the rack again to make it 16-4, demonstrating her ability to take control when needed. Unfortunately, even though the Sky showed some signs of renewed energy they were clearly overpowered by the high-voltage play of the Aces. Their defense stymied Chicago in every way and the Sky didn’t crash the boards, nor did they get back down the court.
Even more distressing, they were terrible from the field. WIth 2:23 left, Chicago trailed 27-7 and were 20 percent from the field compared to the Aces’ 69 percent and 71 percent from beyond the arc.
As the quarter wound down, it was becoming clear that the Aces were dominant. It was up to Chicago to work for one basket at a time and up their game on the defensive end. At the end of the first, it was Las Vegas 33-14. They Sky were 28 percent from the field and zero from three, whereas the Aces were 70 percent and 71 percent, respectively.
The second quarter was the chance for the Sky to regain some level of control or else it would have been an even more uphill battle. At the 7:38 minute mark, it was very much the same as the Aces were soaring their way through the game whereas the Sky were in the midst of major shooting woes. Even when Allie Quigly, Candace Parker or Rebekah Gardner did everything right, they still couldn’t convert. As a result, the Aces were still well ahead 37-14.
At 6:09, Parker broke their 3-point slump, which got the Wintrust faithful on their feet. At the 5:30 mark, Azurá Stevens followed up with a three of her own to make it a 37-22 game. Suddenly there was some sense that Chicago was coming back to life.
Now would the defense get it together?
They were playing with more intensity, but that didn’t stop the Aces from making baskets. Offensively, the Sky were once again making good shot attempts but weren’t following through. At 2:02, Parker hit another three, which gave her 10 points and made the score 45-27. However, she was in a precarious position with two fouls as the first half drew to a close.
With 34.5 seconds left, Emma Meesseman hit a huge three to make it a 12-point game at 46-34. But quickly thereafter, Jackie Young scored on a put back at the buzzer to put the Aces ahead 48-34 going into the locker room. Plum led all scorers with 14 points. Parker, Copper, and Messeman each had 10 points.
The third quarter began with anticipated hope that the Sky would find their way back. In order to do so, they had to rely on their defense to halt the Aces’ offense. They also had to get back on defense, crash the boards, and make good shots. At first, Vegas maintained the advantage as they scored a series of baskets and their defense was continuing to overpower.
After a series of baskets of their own, the Sky got their renewed energy in dramatic fashion from Copper who scored on a long drive to the hole which resulted in an and one to make it 56-44. At 6:10, Copper did it again and made it a single digit game at 56-48. At 4:21, Copper seemingly put the fate of her team on her shoulders as she scored on another drive to the basket to make it 61-52. She was all over the place playing her usual aggressive and intense style at both ends.
After a stretch of back-and-forth play, at 1:14, Gardner scored her seventh basket to make it a single-digit game again at 66-58. The Sky were in position to stage yet another dramatic comeback against Vegas as they did on June 21 when they came back from 28 points down. With 16.9 seconds left, it was Gardner again, as she made it a 67-60 contest, but the incomparable Plum answered right back with another three to end the quarter with the Aces ahead 70-60.
As the final quarter commenced, the Sky had ten minutes to come back from ten points down. If Gardner and Copper continued to make drives to basket and if the team could increase the pressure of their defense, it was possible. However, Meesseman had four fouls and Copper had three at this point which, further complicated their offense. All the Aces had to do was continue to shoot the ball well and let their defense take care of the rest.
The fourth began much as the third had ended with a back-and-forth trading of baskets. At 7:15, Stevens hit two free throws to make it a 76-66 game. At 6:49, Quigly hit a big three to make it a 78-69 game. But every momentum swing that seemed to be in Chicago’s favor was immediately deterred by the prowess of the Aces and specifically Plum, who at the 4:45 mark had 22 points.
Any hope of a comeback was starting to fade but the Sky refused to surrender. They gave it their all as the minutes began ticking away but every shot they made and any defensive success they attained wasn’t enough to overcome the deficit. Even another three by Parker at the 1:17 minute mark wasn’t enough because they were trailing 88-79.
In the end, the Aces dealt a blow to Chicago with a 93-83 win and the 2022 Commissioner’s Cup title. The MVP was given to Chelsea Gray, who scored 19 points, dished out five assists, and grabbed four rebounds. The Aces proved that they are still one of the most dynamic powerhouses in the league in all aspects. Their personality and passion radiates and is keeping with the ethos of the city they come from. Even with the loss, the Sky showed the tenacious perseverance that makes them one of the most beloved teams and nobody can take that away from them.
Afterwards, Wilson, who scored 17 points, grabbed 17 rebounds and had 6 block shots, gave all the credit to the defense for them coming out on top.
“Defense is a heart mentality,” she said. You don’t necessarily have talent to play defense, you just have to want it. When we are locked in on the defensive end, this doesn’t just have to be a Commissioner’s Cup game, this can be an every game thing for us.”
Aces coach Becky Hammon spoke to the much-anticipated hype surrounding a potential Sky/Aces matchup in the Finals by simply focusing on the task at hand.
“I think there’s still a lot of basketball to be played between now and then,” she said. “I think Seattle probably has something to say about that, Connecticut and Washington. It’s a game we are happy to win. Obviously this is not the ultimate goal. It is a nice little thing and I want the girls to remember how it feels and to remember how we got here, which is together.”
Meanwhile, Sky coach James Wade brushed off any concern pertaining to Vandersloot’s condition after being absent the last four games.
“I knew if she was in a uniform, she would be ready to play,” he said.
Parker, who snagged another double double with 20 points and 14 rebounds, spoke of the confidence she had in her team’s ability to overcome challenges.
“I’m not worried about our team when we face adversity,” she said. “I’m worried about our team getting into adversity. Credit to them (Aces), they came out and threw the first punch but for us to get down 33-14 in the first quarter, that is not the way we wanted to come out and play.”
If this is a preview of the Finals, bring it on!