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Sparks Escape Lynx

L.A. starters stand up to pressure to win Game 3, 74-64, and clinch WNBA first-round series. Leslie has 22 points.

September 02, 2003|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

The WNBA crown still rests on the Sparks' heads. Somewhat wobbly, but still there.

A grind-it-out 74-64 victory Monday against the stubborn and feisty Minnesota Lynx, before 6,920 at Staples Center, finally decided this first-round series that swung from apocryphal to epic in equal doses.

The underdog Lynx had stolen Game 1 at home and had two shots at a big upset. But while the Sparks could never totally get away from Minnesota's pressure and determination, they only let Minnesota have one lead in the two games here, and no leads on Monday.

Lisa Leslie had 22 points, but all five Spark starters were in double figures. A good thing, since Coach Michael Cooper used three reserves for a total of four minutes.

"Our starters can go 40 minutes," Cooper said. "We didn't want to play them like that, but we needed this win. I think this has us a little prepared for whomever we face next. It also tested our character, endurance and composure. Those things were very important, especially when they made some runs at us."

Los Angeles, which awaits the victor of tonight's Game 3 between Sacramento and Houston, will open the Western Conference finals Friday as the road team in either city.

Both Sacramento and Houston will be difficult opponents. But no matter what happens next, the Sparks won't soon forget what the Lynx put them through.

"You have to take your hats off to Minnesota," said Tamecka Dixon, who had 14 points and six assists. "They scratched, clawed and fought to the end. It was a fight out there."

Nikki Teasley, who had 13 points and eight assists, also had praise for the vanquished.

"We really want to thank Minnesota. I hope we can carry this momentum into the next series," Teasley said.

"We've definitely gone through some adversity. Maybe some people expected us to win; maybe some people don't want us to win. We learned the games could turn at any time, due to certain circumstances. We just have to stay mentally tough and be ready to face anything that comes our way, because it was a dogfight."

Minnesota had its most effective moments in the series when it went with smaller lineups, trying to counter the Sparks' height with quickness. Although Cooper didn't always like the way his team responded, he was convinced there was no need for major adjustments.

"I think our big people can run the floor like small people," Cooper said. "We're still very athletic there. We wanted to get the ball inside even more, make them double-team and react off their defense.

"Their press can get you playing more up-tempo than you'd like. They can play that kind of chaotic game on defense. We just have to get the ball across the half court and get into some offense real quick, which is what we worked on."

The Sparks made the take-the-ball-inside strategy work early. Seven of their first 11 field goals were layups, and they went a long way in establishing L.A.'s 28-15 lead by the 6:06 mark of the first half. DeLisha Milton, who scored 12 of her 13 points in the first half, took advantage of her length over defenders Svetlana Abrosimova and Katie Smith. Only one of her six field goals was beyond two feet.

Even though the Sparks went into a brief scoring drought, allowing the Lynx to creep within 30-23, there were some warning signs flashing at Lynx Coach Suzie McConnell Serio.

She had to be concerned that her main scorers Smith and Tamika Williams had five and zero points, respectively. And even though Minnesota had only five turnovers, two were wild passes over the heads of wide-open teammates.

Williams found her touch early and often in the second half, making her team's first eight points and ultimately leading the Lynx in scoring with 17. But Smith, a WNBA All-Star, made only four of 14 shots and was limited to 11 points.

The lack of a big night from Smith, and the Lynx shooting 35.4% from the field, made it nearly impossible for Minnesota, but by forcing 16 Spark turnovers, the Lynx didn't let the deficit get larger than 15.

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