WNBA

WNBA Commissioner’s Cup preview: Everything you need to know about the Minnesota Lynx-New York Liberty title game

WNBA Commissioner’s Cup preview: Everything you need to know about the Minnesota Lynx-New York Liberty title game

There’s one main aspect of the Commissioner’s Cup championship game that excites most players, and it’s not the rose gold trophy awaiting the victor.

“I need that win and I need that money,” Minnesota Lynx guard Natisha Hiedeman, playing in her second title game, said last week. “It’s all about the money.”

The WNBA’s fourth annual in-season tournament concludes Tuesday, when Minnesota and New York meet in the Commissioner’s Cup championship at UBS Arena in Elmont, New York (8 p.m. ET, Prime). At stake for the winning squad is a $500,000 cash prize pool — one-third of a team’s salary cap for the 2024 season — and each participating player will receive $5,000 in cryptocurrency. Players on rookie or vet minimum contracts can earn 50% of their base salary by winning the Cup.

And, at least in the past, the game gives an indication of which teams will sit atop the playoff standings in September. The matchup features two leading MVP candidates and the league’s best 3-point shooters.

The Lynx (13-3) will represent the Western Conference in their first Cup title game. They went 4-1 in the new streamlined format of games earlier this month. Seattle, which won the first Cup title in 2021, also finished 4-1, but Minnesota won the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The New York Liberty are going for their second straight Commissioner’s Cup. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The reigning Cup champion New York Liberty (15-3) earned the Eastern Conference berth for the second consecutive season. They swept their five Cup games in eight days and earned hosting rights with the league’s best overall record. Yet they were forced to a different location because Barclays Center is hosting the first round of the NBA Draft on Wednesday. UBS Arena, home to the NHL’s Islanders, holds around 17,000 fans, similar to Barclays, but is an hour drive away.

Liberty officials reportedly offered to play their July 2 regular-season game against the Lynx as the Commissioner’s Cup final, but the Lynx declined. The title game’s date was announced in December, and Prime holds exclusive broadcast rights without any competition. All other teams are on a three-day hiatus from Monday through Wednesday.

The Commissioner’s Cup is one of the league’s largest platforms for charitable donations. Each team selects a charity to support with this year’s focus of civic engagement and reproductive health advocacy. Minnesota is playing for Gender Justice and New York is playing for Women Creating Change. The championship game does not count in the regular-season standings.

Minnesota won its sole meeting with New York, 84-67, a month ago in Minneapolis. Seven players contributed to the team’s 14 triples — led by a 4-of-6 showing from Kayla McBride, and it pulled away in the third. Jonquel Jones and Betnijah Laney-Hamilton were ineffective for the Liberty with four points apiece.

The Liberty can become the Cup’s first back-to-back champions with a victory. The franchise brought home its first trophy last summer — it is the only original franchise to have never won a WNBA championship — and is out to heal the “scars” of a Finals loss to Las Vegas.

New York is top-two in every shooting category (46% FG/35.5% 3FG/83.9 FT) and boasts the best offense through the first quarter-plus of the season as the roster plays with better chemistry than its first year together.

Breanna Stewart (19.9 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 2.1 spg, 1.4 apg) remains at an MVP level, and Sabrina Ionescu, who has done more ball-handling with Courtney Vandersloot out, improved her numbers from the superteam’s first season. Jones is still the key piece; she’s hitting 59% of her field goals. Vandersloot returned to the team over the weekend after the death of her mother and is ramping back up to game action.

The bench experienced the most upheaval and is adding the fewest points, rebounds and assists of any bench in the league, though it's the best unit from deep. Leonie Fiebich is one of the team’s biggest threats from deep and Kayla Thornton is a solid defender. Forward Nyara Sabally showed improvement in the eight games she played, but is out with a back injury.

Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier is a legit MVP candidate. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

Minnesota, largely overlooked in the preseason, is on a shooting heater to start the season. The Lynx lead the league in 3-point shooting at 40%, which would be tied for third all time if the season ended today. Their league-leading assists per game (24.4) would set a WNBA record. They fell behind the Liberty in overall FG percentage over the weekend after shooting 45.3% after an ugly win over the Dream.

It’s an experienced, unselfish group under three-time Coach of the Year Cheryl Reeve. All five starters have at least five years of experience. Forward Napheesa Collier, a leading MVP candidate, is one of four players averaging a double-double (20.9 ppg, 10.4 rpg). She leads that group with the most average assists (3.5) and steals (2.3).

Anyone on any given night can drain triples for Minnesota, but it’s McBride, a 10-year veteran, who has the hottest hand. She’s shooting nearly 50% from beyond the arc, the top mark in the league and 6 percentage points better than her previous career high while taking almost double the attempts. She’s averaging 3.4 makes per game and hit seven or more in back-to-back contests during the tournament stretch.

Pulling Hiedeman and 2023 All-Rookie selection Dorka Juhász off the bench is a luxury. Minnesota is without last year’s No. 2 draft pick Diamond Miller (right knee, out indefinitely) and plays rookie star Alissa Pili a few minutes a game.

Minnesota and Seattle thrived in the shadow of the Aces’ early struggles. Las Vegas (2-3) finished fifth in the West Cup standings behind Phoenix (3-2) and Los Angeles (2-3).

Each of the three previous Cup title games included the reigning WNBA champion (Seattle in 2021, Chicago ’22 and Las Vegas ’23) and foretold the top playoff seeds and Finals favorites.

A team playing in the Cup title game has gone on to the No. 1 overall seed every year. Connecticut, the team Hiedeman previously played with in the Cup title game, earned the No. 1 overall seed in 2021. Seattle, which won the inaugural Cup, finished fourth overall in the postseason picture that does not use conference standings.

Chicago won the Finals that season in a never-before-seen No. 6 vs. No. 5 matchup. The Sky represented the East in the 2022 Cup, lost to Las Vegas and went on to be the No. 2 overall seed to the Aces’ No. 1 in a tiebreaker.

Las Vegas represented the West in the Cup again last summer, lost to New York in a WNBA Finals preview and entered the postseason as the No. 1 overall seed. It defeated No. 2 seed New York in four games in the Finals.

That was under the previous format of 10 games strewn about the front half of the WNBA schedule. The smaller sample size could be more indicative of a team on a hot streak and not one with established success over the front half of the season.

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