The Sparks haven't reached the summit that is the WNBA championship. But for the first time in their history they have a close-up view.
By smashing Sacramento, 93-62, before 7,174 at Staples Center, the Sparks claimed the Western Conference playoff title and their slot in the WNBA finals.
Game 1 of the league finals will be Thursday at Charlotte, N.C. The Sting continued its remarkable playoff run by upsetting the New York Liberty, 48-44.
But the Sparks gave Sacramento no chance of an upset. From the moment DeLisha Milton took the opening tap and raced in for an uncontested layup, the Sparks showed no lingering effects from the 20-point loss they absorbed Sunday.
Instead, they locked down the Monarch offense, which clanked away at 34.3% from the field overall and 35.3% from beyond the three-point arc, while zinging the Monarchs with 52.9% shooting. Sacramento was also outclassed on the boards, 44-25.
The Sparks' lead was 42-27 at halftime. Sacramento never got closer than 14 in the second half and trailed by as many as 34.
"Tonight was Sparks' basketball," Coach Michael Cooper said. "I am so proud of the ladies and how they came committed. They could have backed away from the pressure, but home-court [advantage] is exactly what it is, and we utilized it."
The championship matchup means two storybook seasons will continue--Charlotte's and Lisa Leslie's.
The league's most valuable player took the Sparks on her back and the Monarchs by the throat with a career-high 35 points, a league playoff record. Leslie also had 16 rebounds and set another playoff record for blocked shots with seven.
"Tonight was another step, the last one, to get to the finals," Leslie said. "After Sunday's game we had to look at ourselves in the mirror and decide if we were going to fight hard and come back, or if we were going to let them come in here and take it from us.
"No other game we played this season had this much pressure," Leslie said. "We knew we had to play without fear of jitters. We were beaten up yesterday--I had a bloody lip, a black eye and almost got my nose broken--and we had to prove we could win the battle."
Other Sparks gorged on her intensity. Tamecka Dixon made all three of her three-point shots and had 19 points. Milton had 15 points and effectively controlled Yolanda Griffith, the Monarchs' best player, who had only eight shots in 32 minutes. She finished with six points and four rebounds.
"We responded to the fact we got our butts whipped the other day," said Milton. "We figured it would be hard for any team to beat us twice on our court. But Sacramento is an explosive team. It's like a drop of blood hits the water and here come the sharks. If one of their players hits an open shot it spreads confidence through their whole team."
A clue to the Sparks' mindset was how they defended Ticha Penicheiro. In previous games they had dared the Monarch point guard to shoot. The plan worked in Game 1 when Penicheiro made her first three shots then missed her last seven. But in Game 2, Penicheiro burned the Sparks for 19 points.
The answer came quickly. Penicheiro drove to the basket three times, was blocked twice, and threw one wildly off the backboard. Every time she had the ball, Mwadi Mabika or someone else closed in. Penicheiro wound up 0 for 8 from the field and did not score in the game.
"Ruthie and Kedra had hot hands [Sunday] and they embarrassed us," Dixon said. "But it was a good thing we had a game tonight, so we didn't have to dwell on it."
Leslie, on the other hand, was determined not only to set the tone but set the Monarchs straight from the outset. She had eight points and three blocks in the first five minutes. By the half, Leslie had set a league playoff record for points (22) and rebounds (14). In fact she outrebounded Sacramento by herself; the Monarchs had 12 at the intermission.
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Sparks vs. Charlotte
Game 1: at Charlotte
Thursday, 5 p.m., ESPN2
Game 2: at Staples
Saturday, 12:30 p.m., Channel 4
Game 3: at Staples-x
Sunday, 12:30 p.m., Channel 4
Sting Wins East: Charlotte holds off Liberty, 48-44, to take deciding game of Eastern finals. D10