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Tim's Her Model

It might sound strange coming from an L.A. player, but the consistency and composure of Duncan look perfect to Leslie as she battles to be world's best.

June 24, 2003|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

Please, Shaquille O'Neal, don't get mad.

Lisa Leslie loves you and the Lakers as much as she always has.

"Everybody knows Shaq will always be my favorite," she said.

But there is someone else Leslie is taking inspiration from this year. Someone whose style of play she hopes to emulate.

And he's a Spur.

"This year, I want to be [as consistent] as Tim Duncan," said Leslie, talking of the San Antonio star who was the NBA's regular-season and playoff most valuable player. "I do use him as a motivation. I really like his style, his composure. I'm trying to be good with the referees this year, not talking back or showing a lot of emotion to them, regardless of the calls.

"Again, I love Shaq. But as far as the fundamentals of the game, I think even Shaquille would agree that Duncan is the best right now. And I think Shaq is working on his game to get there."

Whatever is motivating Leslie, it has her playing at a level similar to her 2001 season, when she became the first WNBA player to sweep the league's regular-season, All-Star game and playoff MVP awards.

Statistically, the 6-foot-5 center, now in her seventh season, is a one-woman rotisserie league team. She leads the WNBA in several categories, including scoring, 19.4 points a game; minutes played, 425; blocked shots, 33; rebounds, 125; and double-doubles, eight. She remains an intimidating force on defense and a relentless entity on offense. Every season, she tries to add something to her game. This year, she's shooting hook shots with either hand.

More important, in a league that is stronger than ever, she has carried the Sparks to a 10-2 record, even though the two-time defending WNBA champions have not looked like the dominant team they believe they will become.

Coach Michael Cooper said he was not surprised by Leslie's play.

"She's doing what the best player in the league is supposed to do," he said.

Some of her teammates are more impressed.

"As a player, every year I've seen her game elevate," said Jennifer Gillom, who joined the Sparks this season after six years with Phoenix. "She's at her peak right now. It shows she's worked hard for what she's gotten. And she'll continue to get better. I think she'll hold that [best player title] another couple of years. As long as she stays focused, I don't see why she can't continue to climb."

First things first, though. Leslie wants to see the Sparks smooth out their sometimes ragged play.

"We're making a lot of unforced turnovers and hurting ourselves," she said. "That's how we lost our two games. We definitely have not peaked yet, and can improve. But our chemistry is coming along.

"The more we continue to grow, develop and get better ... I think after the All-Star game, you'll see us playing to the best of our ability -- all of our starters as well as the bench. We're getting comfortable with the new players we have. [But] we still have a lot of work to do."

It would be wrong to think that Leslie is rebounding from a poor 2002 season. It was a solid year -- she averaged 16.9 points and 10.4 rebounds.

And the Sparks again had the league's best record at 25-7 and swept three playoff series in winning their second consecutive title.

Yet it was not quite as good a year as 2001, when Leslie averaged 19.5 points and 9.6 rebounds. That also was the season the Sparks won their first title and ended Houston's four-year WNBA reign and Leslie established herself as the league's best player.

Last year, Sheryl Swoopes of Houston returned from a knee injury that had sidelined her for all of 2001 and won her second regular-season MVP award. Leslie, who finished second in the voting, could use that for motivation, although she says she doesn't. She may also feel the charge of younger talents, Indiana's Tamika Catchings or Washington's Chamique Holdsclaw, who now figure in the debate of who is best.

"It's not about other people," Leslie said. "I'm very self-motivated. Every year, I'm going to have some pretty high goals set for myself, regardless of what the outcome is. Last year, I wanted to win the championship and I've done that. I wanted to be MVP of the championship series and I achieved that. And to be the All-Star MVP ... the [regular-season] MVP was one of the goals I didn't get. But I don't use that as a motivation for this year.

"I think that people know that I'm the best player in the world, and I don't have to spoon-feed them that idea. Sheryl [Swoopes] is a great player in her own right. She came back from a tough knee injury, and to play the way she did, she deserved the MVP."

Veteran Leslie watchers are not fooled.

"Being her teammate, I'm biased and I thought she should have been MVP last year," Tamecka Dixon said. "So yeah, that might be a little added motivation for her.

"But I also think [her start this year] is comparable to two years ago. Back then, she was playing unbelievably well. And this year she's matched that intensity and has that same amount of hunger. This could definitely be another MVP year for her."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Leslie's No. 1

*--* Lisa Leslie leads the WNBA in these 10 categories: Points per game 19.4 Total rebounds 125 Field-goal attempts 201 Total off. rebounds 42 Field goals made 91 Total def. rebounds 83 Free throws 76 Minutes per game 35.4 Double-doubles 8 Blocks per game 2.75

*--*

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