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Sparks Lack Firepower Again Without Leslie

L.A. is handed worst regular-season loss at Staples Center, 84-73. Cooper says team 'can't count' on star's return.

August 03, 2003|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

The second-half numbers are no longer adding up for the Sparks.

On Saturday they were outrun and outfought by the Charlotte Sting, which pinned an 84-73 defeat on Los Angeles before 11,320. It was the worst regular-season home loss for the Sparks at Staples Center, and their third consecutive defeat, which hasn't happened since June 21-24, 2001. All three losses have been by eight points or more.

The loss also reduced the lead the Sparks (18-8) have over Houston to two games in the Western Conference. That lead looks more precarious with the team facing a five-game trip over the next two weeks.

But the biggest number affecting the team's fortunes is nine, the number worn by Lisa Leslie.

For the first time since Leslie went down with a knee injury during the league's July 15 All-Star game, Coach Michael Cooper raised the specter of the Sparks not having their leading scorer and rebounder for the rest of the season.

"We can't count [on her return] right now," Cooper said. "We've got nine games left in the regular season. If she comes back that would be great. As a coaching staff we feel we have enough to win this. We just have to come out and compete.

"I'm hearing conflicting reports on her injury. What she has to do is do whatever she has to do to get well."

When asked if he thought Leslie might not be back this season, Cooper replied, "To this point, as a coach, that's how I'm looking at it. But I still believe in the players we have. We have enough to win. If we had had this group at the start of the year, we would be further along. But having the season cut up -- Tamecka [Dixon has] been injured, Mwadi [Mabika has] been out and now Lisa is gone -- we've not had three-fifths of a starting five ready. Now we're finding out who can play and who works well together."

Leslie said she would stay in Los Angeles and continue to rehabilitate the right knee (officially diagnosed as a bone bruise) that has caused her to miss eight games. She said, "I can only get out there if I can play. At this moment I cannot play ... it's hard to sit and watch when you know you can help change the outcome."

For most of the first half the Sparks and Sting, while not playing aesthetic basketball, did play with the spirit of teams worried about their playoff future. Defenses appeared active, open shots seemed at a premium.

But with five minutes left in the half, the Sparks remained in a rut of cold first-half shooting (13 for 34, 38%), and the Sting (12 for 25, 48%) started to find a rhythm. Consecutive three-point baskets by Allison Feaster and Kelly Miller keyed a 9-2 run that put Charlotte ahead, 31-24, and the visitors increased that lead to 40-31 by halftime.

Early in the third quarter, Sting guard Andrea Stinson made a two-foot layup for her 13th point. She also passed the 3,000-career point barrier, becoming the third WNBA player to do so after Leslie and Houston's Tina Thompson, who reached the milestone Friday night. Stinson finished with 23 points.

Charlotte (14-11) led by as many as 18 points. When Stinson wasn't driving through the Sparks for acrobatic layups, Feaster (21 points) and Dawn Staley (15 points) made outside shots. On offense, the Sparks continued to struggle. DeLisha Milton and Mwadi Mabikahad 23 and 21 points, respectively, but were the only consistent scorers. The two players made 14 of 30 shots and the other Sparks combined for 11 for 36.

In an expected move, the Sparks signed forward Vanessa Nygaard for the remainder of the season.

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