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Tuesday, June 19, 2001
Sparks use Comets as benchmark

By Nancy Lieberman-Cline
Special to ESPN.com

Editor's Note: ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman-Cline, a Hall of Famer and former WNBA coach/player, will preview the top WNBA games each week for ESPN.com.

Los Angeles at Houston
Thursday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Los Angeles Sparks are 9-0, the best start in WNBA history, and playing incredible basketball. Once the Sparks got past Houston to open the season, they realized they had work to do. Sparks coach Michael Cooper has his talented, hard-working players on the right page, including one of the world's best players, Lisa Leslie.

The Sparks always feel they have to compare themselves to the Comets and their legacy of championships. The Comets have been the role models for the WNBA, so Cooper has always had one eye toward Van Chancellor and the success the Comets' coach has had. Cooper and the Sparks want the same type of success. And there is no dispute that the Sparks have the talent and the attitude to win a championship.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Lisa Leslie, Los Angeles
After a slow start, Leslie is starting to pick up her game and had a big performance against Lauren Jackson, Seattle's hot rookie. When Leslie plays hard, demands the ball and gets touches, she's pretty tough to stop. She has great low-post moves, gets to the foul line and is a lot stronger than people think.

Leslie has expanded her game and changed it dramatically as she has gotten older. She doesn't handle the ball well enough to play the three, but she can step outside and shoot the three-pointer when she gets her feet set. At 6-foot-6, she always used to sit in the low block. Now Leslie is good at passing out of double teams and knowing how to operate out of the short corner. Plus, her footwork has improved.

You can't be in as many international wars and games of significance that she has played and not get better. Leslie is a very hard worker and understands she is playing basketball for a living. There is a possibility she could lead the Sparks to their first championship, as long as they stay focused.
-- Nancy Lieberman-Cline

Thursday's game will be tough for the Comets. They are forced to cram makeup games into an already tough schedule because of Tropical Storm Allison. The game against the Sparks is one of Houston's five games -- all at home -- during an eight-day stretch. However, the Comets have the mental toughness to endure their demanding schedule. Chancellor will prepare them well.

In the first meeting between the two teams, people were surprised at how competitive the Comets are. Don't be surprised. Even though they lost two of the world's best players, Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes, the Comets still have two players who are better than most in the WNBA in Tina Thompson and Janeth Arcain.

Much to her credit, Arcain deferred to the big three of Cooper, Swoopes and Thompson and was just a role player. But Arcain is a world-class player and the leading scorer at the Olympics while playing for Brazil. This season she has different responsibilites and is averaging more than 20 points a game.

The Comets are getting incredible productivity out of Thompson and Arcain. If Amanda Lassiter can score six to eight points and if Coquese Washington and Nekeshia Henderson can give them some combination minutes at point guard to go with 15-20 points a night from Thompson and Arcain, Houston will continue to be a competitive, contending team.

While the Sparks need to stay focused, Houston is the underdog. The Comets need to play possession by possession, not turn the ball over and rebound in order to limit the Sparks' options.

New York at Phoenix
Thursday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN2
The Liberty have won four in a row and are playing the best basketball of the young season after an inauspicious 1-3 start. Liberty coach Richie Adubato does a nice job in preparation. When I was in Phoenix recently, Scott Adubato, Richie's son, was there scouting. He knows what his father is looking for and has been successful helping him.

In a wide-open Eastern Conference, New York is a veteran team with good depth and versatility. The Liberty is getting great production from Tari Phillips. All Vickie Johnson has done is become the Liberty's all-time leading scorer. And Crystal Robinson is starting to shake off her ankle injury and is shooting the ball well.

The Mercury has a new coach in Cynthia Cooper and are trying to put the pieces together in the midst of the Brandy Reed suspension. They play great at home because the Mercury fans are phenomenal, but on the road they struggle.

Phoenix has activated two key players -- Michele Timms and Adrain Williams. Timms is such an incredible leader, one of the best in the world. She's coming off a bone graft, which is a 12-month rehab process. But at age 36, she is admirably returning in seven months. In the meantime, rookie Kristen Veal has done a nice job for someone without experience night after night in the WNBA. Williams will help the Mercury with their rebounding and running.

The Mercury normally matches up well and plays with confidence against the Liberty. But the individual matchup to watch will be Phillips against whoever defends her. Phoenix needs to stop Phillips on both ends. At 6-1, she's quick and agile and can go around people. If 6-foot-8 Maria Stepanova has to guard her, the Liberty can use the screen and roll and take Stepanova away from the basket, where she's a dominant shot blocker.

Los Angeles at Cleveland
Friday, 7 p.m. ET
This is a great matchup featuring the top two teams in each conference. The Rockers had a terrific season last year under Dan Hughes, now in his second season. They have depth, height, shooters and slashers. Cleveland doesn't get much hype, but the Rockers are solid, well-coached team that plays good defense and keeps the other team off the offensive boards. Teams have to be patient, find their shot and earn everything against Cleveland. For only a second-year player, Helen Darling is very intelligent and running the Rockers the way she ran Penn State. However, the Sparks have everything on paper, with depth, size, shooters and more experience.