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Jackson's absence is downplayed by Sparks

September 19, 2008|Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writer

A few days ago, Lisa Leslie was sitting in front of her locker at Staples Center when she was asked about the biggest story of the Sparks' opening-round, best-of-three playoff series against the Seattle Storm.

"Lauren's not going to play?" Leslie asked.

Seattle center Lauren Jackson, last season's most valuable player, had surgery on her ankle Aug. 28, days after leading Australia's national team to a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics and is sidelined four to six weeks.

And Leslie, whose U.S. team won the gold, has had enough on-court run-ins with Jackson ever since they first bumped shoulders at the 2000 Olympics. The veteran Sparks center has no doubt what Jackson's absence means.

"I don't think that it matters," said Leslie, who is expected to be named defensive player of the year before Game 1 tonight at Staples Center. "They're going to put five players out on the floor each time to play as hard as they can and they're going to play to win, just like we're going to play to win."

Given the Sparks' roller coaster track record this season, however, Leslie wasn't about to pass around high fives.

Seattle Coach Brian Agler views the Sparks through a somewhat different lens.

"No disrespect to our team, but the Sparks' frontcourt is probably as good as there's ever been in the league," he said. "Hopefully, as a team, we'll play well together and compete and rebound and find a way to hang in there."

Left to deal with the Sparks' all-Olympian frontcourt of Leslie, Candace Parker and DeLisha Milton-Jones is the aging duo of Yolanda Griffith, 38, and Sheryl Swoopes, 37, both former league MVPs but past their prime. Plus, Swoopes is coming back from a concussion and another veteran post player, Swin Cash, sat out the last three games because of lower back pain caused by a herniated disk.

Still, the Storm benefits from one of the league's top points guards, Sue Bird, who averages 14.1 points and 5.1 assists. She's confident the Storm can find a way to overcome their disadvantages against the Sparks.

"It's a very big lineup, but I think we match up pretty well with them," Bird said. "Even though they do have that height, we can combat that with the versatility we have at every position. We've been playing without Lauren for a long time, so at this point it's not something we're concerned with or something we're thinking about."

Sparks Coach Michael Cooper also downplayed the absence of Jackson.

"It's still going to be the intensity level," he said. "Whichever team that comes out and starts with it, that's how the game is going to be played, and I think the team that does that the most will be the team that will win the series."

The Sparks have good reason to be cautious. They blew many big fourth-quarter leads during the regular season and then lost by double digits last week against Atlanta, which came into the game with a 3-29 record. Leslie called the loss "very embarrassing."

Then, on Sunday the Sparks easily beat Seattle in an otherwise meaningless regular-season finale.

Parker, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, was looking forward to treating the playoffs like a new season.

"We're capable of big things," she said. "If that great team shows up, the other teams in the league better watch out."

TONIGHT

vs. Seattle, 7:30, FSN Prime

Site -- Staples Center.

Radio -- 1150.

Records (regular season) -- Sparks 20-14; Storm 22-12.

Record vs. Storm -- 2-1.

Upate -- Nancy Lieberman, one of the all-time great players, said the primary shortcoming for the Sparks this season has been their play at point guard. Shannon Bobbitt and Temeka Johnson, who have shared much of the load, lack size (5 feet 3) and shooting touch from the perimeter, making it more difficult on the frontcourt of Leslie, Parker and Milton-Jones. "If the point guards don't stretch the floor, that allows defenses to sit in the lane," Lieberman said. "If they can win the battle of the boards, if they can get on the offensive glass, that will overcome some of their execution deficiencies."

--

dan.arritt@latimes.com

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