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WNBA / MIKE TERRY

Lynx Exposed Sparks' Weaknesses

September 03, 2003|MIKE TERRY

It was no secret this season that the Sparks were not quite the overpowering force they had been in winning the last two WNBA titles, even when they opened with victories in their first nine games.

The players said they weren't complacent or any less hungry, but how could they not be, especially after enjoying a perfect postseason run (6-0)? Then there was the season itself -- beset with injuries and turmoil, a season unlike any the Sparks have experienced since becoming one of the league's elite teams in 2000.

Even so, Los Angeles was expected to have the easiest opening-round playoff opponent in Minnesota, a team the Sparks had beaten 16 consecutive times. But the Lynx made the Sparks sweat, scramble and survive a series that wasn't decided until the final minute of Monday's Game 3.

Which raises the question: Have the Lynx given the other playoff teams a blueprint for derailing the Sparks?

The Sparks depend on three traits for their edge:

* The forwards and center are mobile and quick, as well as tall, giving Coach Michael Cooper and staff great flexibility on how to defend teams as well as attack them.

* The core group -- Lisa Leslie, Tamecka Dixon, Mwadi Mabika, DeLisha Milton -- has been together several years and knows instinctively how to react to each other on the court. Second-year player Nikki Teasley has gotten in tune with the four other starters faster and better than many believed she would.

* The Sparks carry a champion's arrogance, figuring there is nothing you can throw at them they haven't seen before, and that they will find a way to win. Minnesota lost the series but jarred the Sparks' comfort zone.

The Lynx made Los Angeles hesitant and jittery at times with full-court pressure and half-court zone traps. More than once, the more playoff-experienced Sparks veered from their patient, work-the-ball-inside approach and started flinging wild jump shots. That was a key reason the Sparks never had a lead that was safe, most notably the 21-point spread they gave back in Game 1.

What remains to be seen is whether the Sparks' next opponent, Sacramento, can implement some of the same tactics.

Cooper, for one, doesn't think so.

"Neither one of those teams will play us the way Minnesota did," Cooper said, before Sacramento eliminated Houston on Tuesday night. "The Lynx can virtually go one small forward in Tamika Williams and four guards. That's why they are very hard to guard; they have several people who can shoot the three, and they can penetrate the lane.

"Both Sacramento and Houston are taller teams. Speed-wise, I think we have it over them. And I think the execution we had [in the second half of Game 3] will help us in the next series."

But Cooper also said the Minnesota series had tested the Sparks' character, endurance and composure.

"Those three things were very important," he said. "We had some trouble, but in the end it was about getting the win."

It won't be any easier in the next round.

*

The league's claim that it would be more competitive, top to bottom, this season after folding two teams and redistributing the talent base has been borne out in the playoffs.

Three of the four opening-round series were extended to the three-game limit and most of the games were close. The only sweep was in the Charlotte-Connecticut series, and the only surprise was that Connecticut did the sweeping.

The big disappointment is that not enough people are able to see how taut and exciting this year's playoffs are.

Several games are being shown on cable stations ESPN and ESPN2, and ESPN 2 and ABC will carry the finals.

But there are other games available only on NBATV, and the Oxygen Network, which aren't available in Houston, Sacramento and some other WNBA cities.

It's not going to get better soon, said Traci Cook, the WNBA's senior director of communications.

"NBATV is working on their cable carriage agreements to get on more systems," Cook said. "Oxygen does what it can. But, realistically, I don't think there will be an expansion [of viewing availability] for this year's playoffs. Next year, NBATV should have more cable availability."

Cook said league officials would look at "several factors" when they review the ratings with advertisers, among them the length of the season. This is first time the playoffs have run into the football season.

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