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They're making a point

It is now unwise for Sparks opponents to look at backcourt players Bobbitt and Johnson as weak links.

September 25, 2008|Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writer

When it comes to identifying a soft spot on the Sparks, most defenses prefer to aim their barbs at the point guard position.

Shannon Bobbitt, a 5-foot-2 starter for the Sparks, and Temeka Johnson, a 5-3 reserve, have been labeled a weak link ever since the team drafted Candace Parker last spring, traded for DeLisha Milton-Jones and welcomed back Lisa Leslie after she sat out last season to have a baby.

Considering the frontcourt trio of Parker, Milton-Jones and Leslie won a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics in the summer, opposing defenses didn't have much choice but to target Bobbitt and Johnson, pack the interior and force the point guards to lob risky passes into the middle or shoot from the perimeter.

Bobbitt and Johnson have struggled with their roles at times, to the point that they took turns sitting out several games.

The two were at their best Tuesday night, however, combining for 16 points, five assists, six rebounds and three steals in a series-clinching 71-64 victory over the host Seattle Storm at KeyArena.

On the defensive end, Bobbitt and Johnson systematically shadowed point guard Sue Bird, a most-valuable-player candidate who finished with 16 points, five assists, two rebounds and a steal.

"I thought their defensive pressure finally took its toll on Sue Bird," Sparks Coach Michael Cooper said. "She looked like she was a little fatigued and she wasn't as active as in the last game."

Bird said she felt as if Bobbitt and Johnson were coming at her in waves.

"They really pressure you," she said. "Every sub is just a fresh body coming in to hound me."

Bobbitt, a rookie from Tennessee, and Johnson, a fourth-year player from Louisiana State, will be matched against another point guard with similar offensive skills when the Sparks open the best-of-three Western Conference final series tonight against the San Antonio Silver Stars at the Galen Center at USC. Becky Hammon averaged 17.6 points and 4.9 assists during the regular season, both among the top six in the league.

Johnson, the WNBA's 2005 rookie of the year, began the season as a starter, but her play began to falter after a handful of games and she was replaced by Kiesha Brown. Unknown to most outside the team, Johnson was dealing with the news that her grandmother, Jewel Johnson, who helped raise her, had become paralyzed from a tumor that was pressing against her spine.

After her grandmother's condition worsened, Johnson left the team for three weeks and was with her grandmother when she died July 14.

When the Sparks returned from the Olympic break Aug. 28, Cooper decided to start Bobbitt at point guard and Brown at shooting guard. He has stuck with that lineup.

"Bobbitt is a veteran in the making and she's trying to learn this league," Cooper said. "She makes some mistakes, but you have to live through it. The good thing is we have Johnson behind her and she's a veteran in this league and knows what to do."

There have been some setbacks along the way, such as the Sparks' 83-72 loss to Atlanta on Sept. 11, a team that had a 3-29 record. Bobbitt and Johnson were a combined 0 for 7 from the field, with no points and one assist between them.

Since then, however, they've shown they can hold their own in the WNBA.

Bobbitt, who shot 27.6% from the field during the regular season, has made five of 10 field-goal attempts in the last two games.

Johnson scored eight points apiece in the first and third games of the Western Conference semifinal series. Just as important, they're beginning to gain confidence.

"They're getting it done," Cooper said. "They're two small ones, but they're one great big player."

SPARKS TONIGHT

vs. San Antonio, 7:30, NBA TV

Site -- Galen Center, USC.

Radio -- None.

Records -- Sparks (2-1); Silver Stars (2-1).

Record vs. Silver Stars (overall) -- 2-2.

Update -- Staples Center was unavailable for this game because of a conflict with the opening night of the theatrical show, "Walking With Dinosaurs." The Sparks' home court was installed at Galen Center, which should bring some familiarity. Lisa Leslie, who graduated from USC, should also feel comfortable in the surroundings. Sparks rookie Candace Parker has played some of her best basketball against the Silver Stars this season, averaging just over 21 points and 10 rebounds. Three players for San Antonio are averaging in double figures against the Sparks -- point guard Becky Hammon, center Ann Wauters and forward Sophia Young.

--

dan.arritt@latimes.com

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