A lucrative payday, bragging rights and a chance to make WNBA history are on the line Thursday night when the Storm faces the Connecticut Sun in the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup championship.
The prevailing storyline heading into the culmination of the league’s first in-season tournament, which will be broadcast at 6 p.m. on Amazon Prime Video, will be if the Storm’s five returning Olympians are too tired to battle a rested and motivated Connecticut squad that’s had three weeks of practice to prepare for an eagerly anticipated showdown.
“It’s a great story for the broadcast,” Sun coach Curt Miller said Monday during a Zoom interview with reporters. “Not playing a game for five weeks, are you a little rusty? Are you a little nervous? Are you playing a little fast? Do you settle into the tempo of the game? Or does Seattle look tired and look like they haven’t practiced together?
“It’s going to be interesting. I think it’s unfair to either team that wins the game to say Connecticut was out of rhythm because (Seattle) played a game. It’s unfair to Connecticut if we win to say it’s because Seattle’s players were tired and they haven’t practice a lot since the Olympic break. Who knows how it’s all going to play out and who’s going to play better? That’s why you play.”
Seattle’s Big Three comprised of Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd led the USA women’s basketball team to its seventh straight gold medal with a 90-75 victory over Japan on Sunday. Team USA posted a 6-0 record during the tournament.
In addition, Storm forward Stephanie Talbot and center Ezi Magbegor helped Australia to a 1-3 showing in the Tokyo Games before being eliminated by the Americans in the quarterfinals on Aug. 4.
Following its July 11 win against Phoenix, the Storm took a two-week layoff and resumed workouts July 26 with about half of its team, excluding its five Olympians and forward Katie Lou Samuelson, who was still recovering after contracting COVID-19 and returned to practice last week.
Connecticut got back to work three weeks ago for what Miller described as a “second training camp” led by the team’s three All-Stars Jonquel Jones, DeWanna Bonner and Brionna Jones.
During an interview Monday, Storm coach Noelle Quinn expected Bird, Stewart and Loyd to return to practice Wednesday but wasn’t sure how much they would play Thursday.
Stewart, who logged at least 34 minutes in four of her six Olympic games, played a tournament-high 192 minutes and averaged 15.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 32.0 minutes.
In her final Olympic appearance, Bird tallied 150 minutes while averaging 5.5 points and 5.8 assists. The five-time gold medalist converted just 1 of 14 field goal attempts in her first two games before connecting on 11 of her final 17, including 8 of 13 on three-pointers.
And Loyd, who logged 112 minutes, averaged 4.8 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 18.7 minutes in her first Olympics.
“It wasn’t that our Olympians were away on vacation; they were away on a work call so to speak,” Quinn said. “So 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 chemistry factor.
“I’m hoping that it’s seamless, but there’s very much the reality that the play may not look great those first few possessions because of the time that we’ve had off. We have to get back into a groove and a rhythm. But when you have three Olympians and you have best leader in the world in Sue and best players in the world, it allows me as a coach to take a step back and say let’s see how we can jell and put this together.”
In an attempt to alleviate pressure, Quinn is quick to remind that Thursday’s game does not affect the WNBA regular-season standings and playoffs race, which resumes next week.
Seattle (16-5), Las Vegas (15-6) and Connecticut (14-6) are the leading contenders for the top two seeds, which automatically advance to the semifinals while the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds receive byes to the second round.
Since the WNBA revamped the eight-team playoff format in 2016, the top two seeds are 9-1 in the semifinals.
“This game doesn’t impact our record at all,” Quinn noted. “So there’s some grace there. Using this game to get back acclimated to one another, but not putting pressure on ourselves to go out there and have to play our players 40 minutes. Just making sure we’re feeling good and feeling right and hopefully getting a win out of that but also understanding there is a big picture that we want to look at.”
The Storm, which has 11 regular-season games remaining, begins its post-Olympic break with a five-game road trip followed by a four-game homestand.
The Storm swept the regular-season series against Connecticut starting with a 90-87 overtime victory on May 25 in Everett. The Sun was missing Miller, who was serving a WNBA-imposed suspension.
In their last meeting on June 13, the Storm went to Connecticut and captured an impressive 89-66 win over the Sun, which was playing without its MVP candidate Jones.
This time both teams will be at full strength relatively speaking in what could be a preview of the WNBA Finals.
“If we win, they’re not going to give us much credit because Seattle hasn’t practiced like we have,” Miller said. “But we have to get the cobwebs out. 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.”
Aside from bragging rights and becoming the first team to win the Commissioner’s Cup trophy, there’s a $500,000 in prize money on the line. Each player on the winning team gets $30,000 while the runner-up receives $10,000.
The financial incentive is significant considering player bonuses for winning a WNBA title is $11,356.
Furthermore, $30K would be a substantial payday considering nine Storm players and eight Sun players earn $70,000 or fewer this season.
“Any chance you get to compete for $30K or $10K, obviously you want to win,” said Storm guard Jordin Canada. “That’s what the Commissioner’s Cup is for is to get extra money, so of course you want to win. … That’s just motivation within itself.”