WNBA Previews: Arike Ogunbowale, Dallas Wings face Las Vegas Aces

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A quintet of Commissioner’s Cup contests are on tap on Sunday, marking the close of the first half of the 2021 WNBA season.

The day’s schedule was designed for drama, with hopes that the final Commissioner’s Cup standings would be decided. However, the Connecticut Sun and Seattle Storm clinched the top spot in the Eastern Conference and Western Conference, respectively, on Friday night. The two squads will meet for the Commissioner’s Cup championship, and the coveted prize money, on Aug. 12.

That the Commissioner’s Cup championship contestants have been determined does not mean that Sunday’s action is without intrigue and excitement, as each of the five games offers an interesting storyline.

The day’s slate begins with the Dallas Wings (9-11) hosting the Las Vegas Aces (14-6) at 1 p.m. ET in a national television matchup (ABC). Both squads will be aiming to avoid a three-game losing streak.

These two teams are quite intertwined. Most notably, Liz Cambage was traded from the Wings to the Aces before the 2019 season. In return, Dallas received Isabelle Harrison and Moriah Jefferson. Unfortunately, Cambage will miss the contest due to pre-Olympic obligations with the Australian National Team. This means that the three players involved in the trade still will not have all played in the same game. Nevertheless, there are more connections between the teams, beginning with two sets of championship-winning college teammates. Not only will 2017 national champions and South Carolina Gamecock besties Allisha Gray and A’ja Wilson face off, but three members of the 2018 national championship Notre Dame Fighting Irish also will be on the court, with Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey going against Jackie Young. The connections also extend to the coaching staffs, as Wings’ first-year head coach Vickie Johnson came from Aces’ head coach Bill Laimbeer’s bench.

Johnson’s familiarity with her former team helped Dallas hang with Vegas in the first matchup. However, the Aces’ talent and experience advantages allowed them to pull away down the stretch, winning 85-78 behind 28 points and 14 rebounds from Wilson.

Next up, at 2 p.m. ET (ESPN 3), is a northeast battle in Brooklyn between the New York Liberty (10-10) and Connecticut Sun (13-6). Earlier this season, the Sun throttled the Liberty behind a big-time 31-point and 13-rebound performance from Jonquel Jones. Since then, the Liberty have changed their bench big rotation, swapping Kiah Stokes, who they waived, for Reshanda Gray, who they signed for the rest of the season. However, while Gray offers lots of energy and effort, it is hard to imagine the still-undersized Liberty slowing Jonquel Jones. And, if they somehow do, expect the other Jones — Brionna — to take advantage. That New York shot over 40 percent from 3-point range in that early-June game — and still lost by more than 20 points — does not inspire confidence in their chances.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Indiana Fever (3-16) likely are not looking forward to the Olympic break. After a wayward first half of the season, the Fever, finally, have found a measure of positive momentum, winning two-straight games. They have a good chance of getting a third-straight victory, as they meet the Dream (6-12) in Atlanta at 5 p.m. ET (Facebook). In contrast to Indiana, Atlanta appears desperately in need of some extended time off.

Until the situation clearly is resolved, the cloud of the Chennedy Carter “controversy” will hang over the Dream. In the aftermath of a spat between Carter and Courtney Williams during and after a recent Dream-Aces game, Atlanta suspended Carter indefinitely for conduct detrimental to team. Additional reporting further indicated that Carter has emerged as a locker room problem, although Dream co-owner Renee Montgomery offered an optimistic perspective of her team’s culture-building process. It seems safe to say that a win would help cure some of the questionable vibes that surround the Dream.

At 6 p.m. ET, the Seattle Storm (15-5) welcome the Phoenix Mercury (9-9) to the Pacific Northwest. Oftentimes, this matchup will be about Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. However, with Taurasi possibly out of the lineup once again due to a hip injury, there is an opportunity for other players to dominate the storyline. This is what happened on Friday night, when Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith stepped up in Taurasi’s stead to take down the league-leading Storm. On Sunday, can Sue Bird’s running mates — Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd — reverse the script and lead Seattle to the victory?

The day’s action concludes at 9 p.m. ET with a classic WNBA rivalry, although the current Los Angeles Sparks (6-12) and Minnesota Lynx (11-7) bear little resemblance to the squads that defined the mid 2010s.

The squads also do not look like the teams their organizations expected to take the court this season, as both have experienced injuries to important players. LA not only remains without the Ogwumike sisters, but Kristi Toliver will miss a sixth-straight game with an eye injury. For Minnesota, two of their prominent offseason additions have spent little time on the court. Currently out with a thumb injury, Aerial Powers has dealt with a couple of unlucky injuries, while Natalie Achowa is out indefinitely with a knee injury. Neither of the teams’ first round draft picks have played (or will play) this season, as the Sparks’ Jasmine Walker suffered a season-ending knee injury and the Lynx’s Rennia Davis will miss her rookie season with a foot injury.

Despite this misfortune, the Lynx have begun to find their stride, winning six-straight games behind better offensive performances. The Sparks, in contrast, have continued to struggle on the offensive end, requiring them to rely on their aggressive defense to win games. However, Minnesota is poised to exploit Los Angeles’ glaring defensive weakness. While LA ranks near the top of the league in steals and blocks, they are the WNBA’s worst defensive rebounding team. When Sylvia Fowles is on the other side, this problem likely will be exacerbated. To snap their six-game losing streak, the Sparks have to find a way to keep Fowles off the glass and turn defense into offense.


Game information

Dallas Wings (9-11) vs. Las Vegas Aces (14-6)

When: Sunday, July 11 at 1 p.m. ET

Where: College Park Center in Arlington, TX

How to watch: ABC or TSN5

Key to the matchup: Aces’ head coach Bill Laimbeer is known for rigorously defining his players’ roles. While Wings’ head coach Vickie Johnson served as an assistant under Laimbeer for three seasons, she has developed a different approach to player roles, frequently changing her rotation based on the particularities of each contest. While Arike Ogunbowale, Satou Sabally and Moriah Jefferson have been established as every-game starters, Johnson has switched up the other two spots. Against the Aces, Johnson’s frontcourt rotation will be especially interesting. When MVP A’ja Wilson is on the court, will she entrust significant playing time to No. 1 pick Charli Collier? Or, will Johnson turn to the veteran Isabelle Harrison? A few weeks ago, Bella Alarie impressed with her effort against the Mercury’s Brittney Griner. Might she see an uptick in minutes on Sunday afternoon? Alternatively, Johnson could try to test Vegas with a small-ball lineup. In short, Johnson has lots of interesting options that she has proven unafraid to use.

Wings injury report: none

Aces injury report: Liz Cambage (NWT; national team), Angel McCoughtry (out for season; knee)

New York Liberty (10-10) vs. Connecticut Sun (13-6)

When: Sunday, July 11 at 2 p.m. ET

Where: Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY

How to watch: ESPN3, YES, NESN+ or SN360

Key to the matchup: Two of the four participants in the upcoming WNBA All-Star 3-Point Contest — Sami Whitcomb and Jonquel Jones — meet in this contest. Unsurprisingly, whenever one of these sharpshooters catches fire from long range, their team tends to win. Whitcomb, who leads the league with 55 made three, is shooting a career-high 44.7 percent from deep. Curiously, she shoots better on the road then at home. Luckily for the Liberty, Jonquel Jones, who has converted 44.4 percent of her 3s this season, feels more comfortable shooting in Mohegan Sun Arena. Despite these trends, both are capable of finding their range at Barclays. If they do, their deep shooting will give their team an edge.

Liberty injury report: Rebecca Allen (NWT; national team), Natasha Howard (out; knee), Jocelyn Willoughby (out for season; Achilles)

Sun injury report: Alyssa Thomas (out for season; Achilles)

Atlanta Dream (6-12) vs. Indiana Fever (3-16)

When: Sunday, July 11 at 5 p.m. ET

Where: Gateway Center Arena @ College Park in Atlanta, GA

How to watch: Facebook, Bally Sports South or fever.wnba.com

Key to the matchup: For the season, the combination of Danielle Robinson and Kelsey Mitchell is the Fever’s most common two-player lineup. Possibly, their significant shared court time is beginning to pay off. Indiana has won two-straight games due to strong performances from its starting backcourt. In the past two games, Robinson played more than 33 minutes as she averaged 18.5 points, 3.5 assists and only one turnover. Playing more than 32 minutes, Mitchell averaged 17 points, 4.5 rebounds and three assists. Expect Atlanta’s guards to dial up the defensive pressure to try to disrupt the peaking pair.

Dream injury report: Chennedy Cater (out indefinitely; suspension), Tiffany Hayes (out; knee)

Fever injury report: Jantel Lavender (out; knee), Bernadett Határ (out; ankle)

Seattle Storm (15-5) vs. Phoenix Mercury (9-9)

When: Sunday, July 11 at 6 p.m. ET

Where: Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, WA

How to watch: CBS Sports Network or JOE TV

Key to the matchup: Skylar Diggins-Smith leads the WNBA with 6.9 free throw attempts per game. For the season, her 105 free throws trail only A’ja Wilson’s 118. When Diggins-Smith gets to the line, it is generally a good sign for the Mercury. In wins, Diggins-Smith averages 7.6 free throw attempts. In losses, her freebies drop to 6.3 per game. On Friday night, she shot nine free throws, converting all of them. The game before, also a Mercury upset win, Diggins drained all 11 of her free throws. If Diggins-Smith’s offensive aggressiveness is again rewarded with repeated trips to the line, Phoenix should be in position for a third-straight victory.

Storm injury report: Stephanie Talbot (NWT; national team), Ezi Magbegor (NWT, national team), Mikiah Herbert Harrigan (out for season; personal)

Mercury injury report: Diana Taurasi (questionable; hip), Sophie Cunningham (out; concussion), Alanna Smith (NWT; national team), Bria Hartley (out indefinitely; knee)

Los Angeles Sparks (6-12) vs. Minnesota Lynx (11-7)

When: Sunday, July 11 at 9 p.m. ET

Where: Los Angeles Convention Center in Los Angeles, CA

How to watch: Spectrum Sportsnet or SN360

Key to the matchup: It appears Kayla McBride has acclimated to Minnesota. After an okay start to the season, McBride is rounding into McBuckets form, providing the shooting and scoring the Lynx envisioned when they signed her as a free agent this offseason. During the Lynx’s six-game win streak, McBride is a team-high plus-12.2, averaging 17.2 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 65.4 percent. In these six games, McBride is doing slightly more self-creation, a sign of how she is further finding her niche in the Lynx offense. For the the season, 17.8 percent of her 2-pointers have been unassisted. Her unassisted 2-pointers account for 26.1 percent of her 2-point baskets during the Lynx’s current winning streak.

Sparks injury report: Kristi Toliver (out; eye), Nneka Ogwumike (out; knee), Chiney Ogwumike (out; knee), Jasmine Walker (out for season; knee), Maria Vadeeva (NWT; overseas)

Lynx injury report: Crystal Dangerfield (questionable; shoulder), Aerial Powers (out indefinitely; thumb), Natalie Achonwa (out indefinitely; knee), Rennia Davis (out for season; foot)



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