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Sparks, Comets Hit Big Time

August 08, 2002|MIKE TERRY

Although the Liberty, Mystics, Fire and Storm might disagree, the biggest game of the WNBA's regular season will be played tonight when the Sparks and Comets square off for the third and final time.

The game will go a long way to deciding the Western Conference's top seeding. Should the Sparks win, they will lead by 1 1/2 games with three to play. Those final games, against Utah, Minnesota and Phoenix, are on the road, but it seems a good bet Los Angeles will win two of them.

If Houston wins, the Comets will take the season series, 2-1. Then if the teams end the season in a tie, the Comets will have home-court advantage in the playoffs. Houston finishes the season at home, where the Comets have won 12 straight, against Sacramento and Minnesota.

The game may serve another purpose. The league's race for the most-valuable-player award appears wide open, so tonight's game might eliminate the candidacy of either the Comets' Sheryl Swoopes or the Sparks' Lisa Leslie.

The league doesn't have an award for comeback player of the year. If it did, Swoopes would be a unanimous choice. After sitting out the 2001 season because of a torn ligament in her left knee, Swoopes is very close to the statistics she accumulated during her 2000 MVP season. She is second to Indiana's Tamika Catchings in WNBA scoring at 17.9 points a game and in steals, with 82 to Catchings' 84.

Leslie, the defending MVP, is averaging 16.6 points. That's almost three points below last year's average. But Leslie leads the WNBA in rebounds, and is second in blocked shots.

Leslie and Swoopes stand tall in an MVP field that includes Catchings, New York's Tari Phillips (although, as a center, she should do better than 6.9 rebounds), and Seattle's Lauren Jackson (who will split some votes with teammate Sue Bird). Washington's Chamique Holdsclaw would have been a runaway winner for the award if she hadn't missed so many games because of an ankle injury.

Still, the real beauty of tonight's showdown will be the game's intensity level. Respect for each team is considerable on both sides. So is the contempt.

Houston still considers Los Angeles a paper champion, winning last year's title only because the Comets lost Swoopes to injury and Cynthia Cooper to retirement.

The Sparks admire the Comets' status as the league's four-time champion but can't stand listening to the trash talk, or put up with what they consider is more than just "physical play" by Houston.

It may be just a game, but the result could have a lasting impact on the teams' playoff psyches.

Too Quiet

There has apparently been no discussion on a new deal between the players' union and WNBA management negotiators. Nada. Zippo.

Maybe it has something to do with the union seeking to have an independent auditor examine the WNBA's books, and the WNBA owners, ahem, politely declining.

It was a good idea for both sides to stop speaking publicly on a new contract to replace the working agreement that expires Sept. 15.

But it's a bad idea, even with this latest charade, that there is no dialogue being exchanged. Silence, in this case, is not golden.

Campaign Season

Now that the Phoenix Mercury season is all but over, with 10 losses in the last 11 games, Hall of Fame player and TV analyst Nancy Lieberman is openly campaigning for the head coaching job.

"If they talk to me, I'm the person for that job," Lieberman told the Arizona Republic. "I know I am. I was very disappointed when [Cynthia Cooper, who resigned on June 26] got hired. Not to say she wasn't the one, but I was professionally disappointed."

Lieberman's previous WNBA coaching stint was in Detroit, where she had a 46-48 record in three seasons. She was replaced by Greg Williams after the 2000 season.

General Manager Seth Sulka has indicated he will talk to several candidates about the job, including interim Coach Linda Sharp.

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