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Thursday, July 5, 2001
Cooper keeps pushing Sparks

By Nancy Lieberman-Cline
Special to

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

Los Angeles at Phoenix
Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
When the two teams played last Friday, Phoenix never had a chance. It was a debacle from the beginning. The Sparks, however, have done that to a lot of teams, not just the Mercury.

But coach Michael Cooper knows the Sparks have more work to do. As someone who owns several NBA championship rings, Cooper knows how players can look at a stat sheet after winning a game and pat themselves on the back. He is trying to get Lisa Leslie, DeLisha Milton, Latasha Byears, Ukari Figgs, Tamecka Dixon and the other players on a different level mentally.

Jackie Stiles, Portland
Jackie Stiles is simply amazing. After she entered peoples' hearts and minds during the Women's NCAA Tournament, I'm sure people said, "Well, she is good in college. But can she play at the next level against the WNBA's great players?"

Well, against Washington recently, Stiles made Nikki McCray look like me -- retired. She put a move on McCray that made McCray practically break her ankles and twist her knees. She had no clue where Stiles was going, and McCray is a fairly decent defensive player. But Stiles is quick, has great hops and can get her shot off on virtually anybody. She can handle, shoot and pass. She is more athletic and a better defensive player than people think.

Stiles is a joy to watch. Comets coach Van Chancellor said he would pay to see Stiles play. Everything about Stiles is a positive and good for the game. I love her attitude and the look on her face. She gives everything and is a team player. She is not into the crowd or anything flashy. I can't remember seeing a player so focused. I don't think Stiles is interested in the money or the notoriety. She just wants to play basketball.

A year ago Betty Lennox was the only rookie to make a big contribution. Several players from the 2001 draft, however, have made impacts, including Stiles, Lauren Jackson and Marie Ferdinand. But Stiles plays as well as anybody and will be star in the WNBA for a long time.
-- Nancy Lieberman-Cline

Coaches want their teams to play hard on every possession. So I applaud Cooper for instilling a winning attitude and work ethic. The Sparks have to respect him because no one else on the Sparks has a championship ring. It's like playing for Pat Riley or Phil Jackson in the NBA; the players have to line up and listen to what Cooper says.

Everyone thought last season belonged to the Sparks until they lost to Houston in the Western Conference finals. But this season Cooper has taken Leslie, one of the world's best centers, and moved her to the three. I liken it to when I was working with Martina Navratilova in the early '80s. Her coach, Renee Richards, took the No. 1 tennis player in the world and changed her serve. Then she had the best serve in the world.

Likewise, Cooper has asked Leslie to expand her game. Although Leslie has dominated inside, with great post moves and shot blocking, Cooper has put her on the perimeter to see if she could guard people, move her feet, and penetrate and pass. I really like what Cooper has done with Leslie, who is hungry for knowledge and eager to improve her game. Like a few other players in the league, Leslie is having an MVP season.

Phoenix plays like a much different team at home. If the Mercury could play every game at home, they would be in every game. The crowd fuels much of their energy for players like Michele Timms and Bridget Pettis. It's important for the Mercury to come out strong and match the Sparks' energy and intensity from the beginning on both ends of the floor. If they can stay in the game and hang around for eight or nine minutes, the Mercury will gain momentum and confidence. "Uncle Mo" is a strange relative -- no one knows when he is coming or going.

The Mercury also has to box out and keep Los Angeles off the boards. The Sparks, the league's highest-scoring team, wants to rebound or create a turnover and run, eliminating possessions for the other team. If the Mercury don't take care of the ball, the Sparks are good at turning mistakes into points. In fact, they are good at everything.

Houston at Portland
Thursday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN2
The Fire are a solid team that is really active in the post. Sylvia Crawley, having her best season, will probably match up defensively on Tina Thompson. Crawley has mobility and has stretched her game to where she can take Thompson away from the basket. I expect a classic heavyweight battle between Houston's Tiffani Johnson and Portland's Alisa Burras. Burress likes to play down low and is more of offensive threat than Johnson, who is a great offensive rebounder.

Cleveland had the defense to pull off a rarity on Sunday, holding Thompson and Janeth Arcain under their season scoring averages. Sophia Witherspoon should guard Arcain and will need to get physical with Arcain without getting into foul trouble. Arcain, meanwhile, will either have to guard hot rookie Jackie Stiles or Witherspoon. Tully Bevilaqua will play against Coquese Washington, who is getting the bulk of the minutes at the point for the Comets.

Comets coach Van Chancellor told me Sunday he has tightened his bench and will go with an eight-player rotation for the rest of the season. He will use Tammy Jackson, Tynesha Lewis and Nekeshia Henderson off the bench. He found out which players he wants to play, and will play them. Jackson is a savvy veteran in the post, but Lewis is a rookie as is Henderson because she was out all last season.

I expect the Fire and the Comets to play a spirited game. Both teams like to push the ball and have active rebounders. The Fire rely so heavily on Stiles and Witherspoon for points. The game will depend on which team can take away the other team's impact players -- Stiles and Witherspoon for Portland, and Thompson and Arcain for Houston.

Los Angeles at Washington
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET, NBC
The Mystics may be the shock of the WNBA season. I thought they would contend with New York for a conference championship, but Washington is playing bad basketball. Against Phoenix on Saturday, the Mystics had no continuity in their offense. Players were standing around. It looked like five individual players playing one-on-one basketball.

If the Mystics play the same against Los Angeles, the Sparks will love it. Unless the Mystics can reverse the ball, go inside out with the ball and set screens, the Sparks will thrive. Los Angeles can defend teams one-on-one. The key to beating the Sparks is getting down the floor before their defense sets up and moving the ball side to side hoping they will make a verbal, physical or movement mistake. Maybe the Sparks will get caught in a switch.

The Mystics have two All-Star starters -- Olympians Chamique Holdsclaw and Nikki McCray -- and can match up to much of Los Angeles' individual talent. Vicky Bullett is a fantastic veteran player. Murriel Page is starting to pick up her game. Point guard Annie Burgess is trying to run Tom Maher's offense. Helen Luz and Audrey Sauret were good international pickups for the Mystics. It's easy for me to say they lack chemistry or timing, but I'm sure Maher is not happy with their performance either. He is a strong coach who knows what he is doing. However, their talent is not coming together.

Look what happened to Charlotte. The Sting started the season 1-10. Now they have won seven in a row. Anne Donovan got the Sting players to sacrifice for the whole. But Washington hasn't gotten to that point yet. Against Phoenix, Holdsclaw was trying to make things happen, but she only scored seven points.

Washington's key against the Sparks is to play as a team. The Mystics' season is slipping away, and they only have 16 games left. To get into the playoffs, the Mystics need a few winning streaks. But a win over the Sparks is a tough place to start.