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Sparks down to the final stretch

The 9-18 team says it is improving despite injuries and Holdsclaw's departure, but time is running out with only seven games left.

August 07, 2007|Lauren Peterson Times Staff Writer

It was the day before the Western Conference-leading San Antonio Silver Stars came to town, and hanging over the Sparks' practice session were these grim numbers: six consecutive losses, five at home. Both were franchise low points.

"I guess the question to ask ourselves is, 'Can it get any worse?' " General Manager Penny Toler said that day, two weeks ago.

The Sparks lost to the Silver Spurs, 63-61, but played very well. With then seven consecutive losses, could a seven-game trip be worse? It wasn't.

First up was the Phoenix Mercury on July 20, and by the end of the night, the Sparks finally had a victory. An added bonus: Sidney Spencer, one of the leading candidates for rookie-of-the-year honors, scored 24 points.

Tonight, as the Sparks return home to face the now-playoff-bound Mercury, they are 9-18 overall -- second-worst in the league -- after going 2-5 on the road. Still, there is hope, even with only seven games left.

"We've actually gotten a lot better," Toler said a few days ago. "It's not really showing up in the win column yet."

The Sparks, who have dropped 16 of their last 20, are trying to stave off elimination after eight consecutive postseason appearances and remain in contention for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

"Our goal is to win a championship," Coach Michael Cooper said. "And that will be the goal until we're mathematically out of it.

"We're definitely playing better basketball. Sometimes the road can be a good thing. It's just you and the team out there, and sometimes it brings people together. I hoped that would happen . . . and I think it did."

How bad was it at home?

A determined Cooper, who coached the team to consecutive titles in 2001 and 2002, may have put it best about halfway through the losing streak: "We're in uncharted waters."

Center Christi Thomas is one of only two on the active roster who played for Cooper during his first go-round with the Sparks. The losses have tested her resolve.

"Every loss just is a little punch in the stomach," she said. "Everything is real important right now -- all of it. You can't keep saying, 'Well, there'll be tomorrow, there'll be tomorrow.' "

Such a bumpy season was not what Cooper had in mind when he returned last spring to take the helm. Named WNBA coach of the year in 2000, the former Lakers star was presented with a mix of players whose talent -- raw and proven -- could, he thought, make people forget that three-time league MVP Lisa Leslie was on maternity leave.

But then the layers began peeling away.

Veteran point guard Temeka Johnson, who runs the offense so well, unexpectedly had knee surgery and missed the first six weeks.

Chamique Holdsclaw, an impact player on every level and the team's high scorer through the first eight games, retired before the ninth game.

Taj McWilliams-Franklin, a superb player who can dominate inside, missed key games because of a strained hamstring.

Not all was lost, however. The Sparks had two promising rookie guards -- Spencer, fresh off Tennessee's NCAA championship, and Marta Fernandez, who had played in Spain -- and reliable veterans such as Thomas, Jessica Moore, Murriel Page, Mwadi Mabika, and newcomer Sherill Baker.

Still, the starting lineup had barely played together and had a new coach.

"People are still trying to figure me out, and I'm still getting to know people," Cooper said. "Chemistry doesn't just happen."

One thing has united them: Cooper's push on defense.

"I'm going to continue to stress defense, because that's been my staple as a player," the former NBA defensive player of the year said. "In my past years here with the Sparks, we've won championships like that, and I'm not going to deviate from that now."

Spencer, for one, supports that notion. "Coaches can only do so much," she said. "Our team just has to look inside each other and come together as a unit."

The numbers are stark. The Sparks' scoring average of 72.9 ranks 12th among the league's 13 teams. They are third-worst in field goal percentage (40.9%) and suffered their worst shooting performance of the season (28.6%) in Friday's 66-56 loss to Houston.

The team is still struggling to find that go-to player when the game is on the line. Since Holdsclaw retired, eight different players have taken turns being the game's top scorer. In the Sparks' winningest seasons, Leslie was that player. In 193 games from 2000-2004, Leslie led or tied for the team scoring lead 107 times.

Johnson, who has been in only nine games since coming back from surgery, doesn't want to think about what is past, including the losing streak.

"You've got to move forward. I think we're a much better team than what the streak presented. . . . We know in our hearts that we're a much better team."

Toler still believes too.

"I'm very proud of this team," she said, "because they could've quit a long time ago, but they haven't. In fact, everybody in this organization is still hoping we're going to make the playoffs. That may be insane, but you never know."


vs. Phoenix, 7

Site -- Staples Center.

Radio -- 1150.

Records -- Sparks 9-18, Mercury 18-11.

Record vs. Mercury -- 1-0.

Update -- The Sparks may be without center Jessica Moore, who is questionable because of a sprained right ankle sustained in their last game, at San Antonio on Saturday. Guard Temeka Johnson is expected to play after experiencing tightness in her right quadriceps and sitting out most of Saturday's game. The Mercury has clinched its first playoff berth since 2000.

Tickets -- (877) 447-7275.

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