Professional Basketball

Liberty to Host Lynx for Commissioner’s Cup Championship Tonight

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New York Liberty players Jonquel Jones (L) and Breanna Stewart (R) will be leading the Liberty’s Commissioner’s Cup defense at UBS Arena tonight. File photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

A half million dollars are on the line to the winning team tonight when the New York Liberty hosts the Minnesota Lynx for the fourth annual WNBA Commissioner’s Cup championship tonight at UBS Arena in Elmont, New York.

The WNBA Commissioner’s Cup began in the 2021 season as an in-season tournament between the two conferences with the teams that compiled the highest winning percentage in conference play would face each other in the championship. There were no added games to the schedule, except the championship game.

The format changed to a two-week in-season tournament this year, with each team playing its conference rivals once during that span as denoted cup games. The teams with the highest winning percentage from each conference, the Liberty and Lynx this year, are playing in the championship.

The prize pool has remained consistent from the beginning – $500,000 for the winning team to share, which amounts to $30,000 per player, with the losing team netting $10,000 per player. The game’s MVP is awarded $5,000. The winning team also receives a championship trophy. New to the prize pool this year is each player receiving a $5,000 bonus paid in bitcoin by Coinbase, the Commissioner’s Cup title sponsor.

There is also a charity component to the game. New York raised $15,000 for Women Creating Change during the regular cup games. Minnesota earned $13,000 for Gender Justice. The winning team tonight will get an additional $10,000 donation while the runner-up receives $5,000.

This is the second WNBA Commissioner’s Cup game for Lynx guard Natisha Hiedeman, who played in the inaugural game in 2021 for Connecticut. File photo by Abe Booker III/Sportspage Magazine

The Seattle Storm won the inaugural contest 79-57 over the Connecticut Sun in 2021. The Las Vegas Aces downed the Chicago Sky 93-83 in the second championship game. Last year the New York Liberty defeated the Aces 82-63 at Michelob Arena in Las Vegas. They will try to be the first team to repeat as Commissioner’s Cup champions, this time in front of a home court.

“We want to win, just because,” said Liberty forward Breanna Stewart after the team clinched home court after defeating the Washington Mystics on June 9. “But understanding that if we won today then we will be hosting. Having that, being back home in front of the fans, it’s something we had to play against before and now having home court advantage is huge for us.” Stewart will be playing in her third Commissioner’s Cup championship game in the four years of its existence.

This is the first year that the Minnesota Lynx will be competing for the Commissioner’s Cup.

“It’s the first time in a while that we’ve had a chance to think about getting into contention for some money for the players,” said Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve on May 31 just before the in-season tournament commenced. “I am thrilled to be able to be excited. I have not paid attention to Commissioner’s Cup games since it started. We now have a team that understands that we could be playing in the Commissioner’s Cup.”

After clinching the championship berth two weeks later, Reeve said, “I think it’s great. It’s something they [the players] were interested in and the league was interested in having a chance to create more opportunities for more revenue for the league and for the players.”

“I love the format this year versus years past where we played so many games. I kind of like the shortened nature of it. It worked well. I don’t know if we’ll keep that or not but I think the players are excited about it. I’m proud of them for winning the games that we won. If it wasn’t Commissioner’s Cup, hopefully we would still be of the mindset of wanting to win. They really wanted it and so I’m really happy for them,” Reeve added.

Liberty players Betnijah Laney-Hamilton (44), Sabrina Ionescu (20) and Courtney Vandersloot (22) are looking forward to defending their Commissioner’s Cup in front of a home crowd tonight. File photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

The Liberty swept their conference rivals with a 5-0 record and a points differential of 78. Minnesota sported a 4-1 record, their lone loss coming on a heartbreaking one-point loss on the road when Mercury guard Kahleah Copper drained a three-pointer with less than a second remaining to lift her team to an 81-80 victory at Footprint Center in Phoenix on June 7. The Lynx held a point differential of 67.

“This is my first Commissioner’s Cup I’ve ever played in,” said Lynx center Alanna Smith. “Money. That’s what the Commissioner’s Cup is all about. That’s the incentive to play in it. We’re playing against a really good team in New York. It’s a good chance to have a crack at a really good team that’s playing really well. It’s going to be a good matchup.”

This year the Commissioner’s Cup venue was mired in a bit of a controversy. Last week, on Monday June 17, the league announced that the game would be held at UBS Arena in Elmont instead of the Liberty’s home court at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, due to a scheduling conflict. The NBA has held their draft annually at Barclays Center since 2013, with the exception of the COVID year in 2020. This year’s draft is June 26, the day after the Commissioner’s Cup, which would not allow for enough time to play the game and get the arena ready for the draft.

The 2024 WNBA schedule with Olympic break has made scheduling problematic. The Liberty played back-to-back games on Saturday and Sunday, which made moving up the game to an earlier date near impossible, while the Lynx have their next regular season matchup scheduled for Thursday. Reports have surfaced that the Liberty offered to have their July 2 regular season game against the Lynx count as the Commissioner’s Cup championship, but the Lynx declined that option.

“It’s not the day of the Commissioner’s Cup,” Reeve said before the team played Dallas on June 17. “The July 2 game is a regular-season game. The Commissioner’s Cup is June 25, and all parties have known that for a while.”

The Minnesota Lynx signed veteran guard Courtney Williams (L) and center Alanna Smith (R) during the offseason. The two are an integral part of the Lynx team that is now in the Commissioner’s Cup championship game at UBS Arena tonight. File photo by Abe Booker III/Sportspage Magazine

Mike Bass put out a statement on behalf of the NBA. “With the scheduling of the NBA Draft at Barclays Center on June 26, the NBA created an unavoidable conflict for use of the building,” Bass said. “We are working closely with the New York Liberty on this one-game relocation to UBS Arena and to provide the best possible experience for attendees and participants at the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup Championship. We apologize for any inconvenience to the Liberty’s season ticket holders and loyal fans.”

Though the Liberty organization and fans were disappointed in not being able to play in front of their home crowd at their home arena, they are still gratified to be playing the game in New York.

“It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is. We want to host in New York. I’ve never been to this arena, but I heard it’s a nice one…we’re pros, we’ll go out and play,” said Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello.

Liberty center Jonquel Jones knows that their fans will show up regardless if the game is held at Barclays Center or USB Arena.

“Our fans are amazing. They show up. They show out and they give us the extra boost that we need to just win games,” said Jones. “We’re happy that they’re going to be able to watch the Commissioner’s Cup and they’re going to be able to cheer us on. We want to go out there and do everything possible in order to get the win for them.”

Not so fast, says Lynx guard Natisha Hiedeman. As a member of the Connecticut Sun, she went up against Breanna Stewart and the Seattle Storm in the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup championship game. Stewart was the game’s MVP while Hiedeman was on the runner-up team.

“I need that win and I need that money,” said Hiedeman. “I lost the only one I’ve been in. I need it this time.”

The players from both teams know that there’s a lot at stake. A $30,000 per person bonus, $5,000 per person in bitcoin, a contribution to charity, a trophy and bragging rights for a year is a lot for one game. Plus, both teams are in contention for high ranked playoff seeding and will be playing another important regular season game next week.

“I’m not going to lie. It’s going to be something very special for us. We’re ready for it,” said Liberty forward Kennedy Burke.

The Lynx will also be ready.

“We’re in the Commissioner’s Cup finals. We’re the best team in the West. I feel like we have so much room to grow even more. We’re playing well but we can play even better. That’s what’s really promising,” said Lynx forward Napheesa Collier.

For all we know, the Commissioner’s Cup might be a precursor to these two teams meeting for a post-season series in October.

The Commissioner’s Cup championship game at UBS Arena in Elmont, New York, tips off at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT tonight and aired on Amazon Prime.

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