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Monday, July 29, 2002
Updated: August 5, 10:38 PM ET
L.A. story no slam dunk

By Nancy Lieberman
Special to ESPN.com

Lisa Leslie threw one down last week. But when it comes to wrapping up the regular season, the Los Angeles Sparks' run is no slam dunk.

Michael Cooper
Michael Cooper and the Sparks are 22-6, but haven't seemed quite as dominating this summer.
With just four games remaining before the postseason arrives, who would have thought that Los Angeles, the defending WNBA champion, wouldn't have homecourt advantage and the top spot in the West sewn up by now?

Los Angeles' 81-76 defeat at home to Seattle on Thursday was a big loss, and put a lot of pressure on the Sparks as the season winds down. While L.A. was able to rebound with a 90-86 come-from-behind win over Utah on Sunday, the Sparks' road from here out is a tough one -- they host Houston on Thursday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2) and face Utah again on Friday -- this time on the road and in a tough back-to-back.

The Sparks then finish the season on the road at Minnesota and at Phoenix. Neither team has won 10 games this season, and L.A. is 11-3 on the road, but remember that Houston trails the Sparks by just one game in the Western Conference standings through Sunday. Thursday's game against the Comets could be the clincher for either team.

While L.A. is still one of the league's top teams, the Sparks have appeared to be more human in recent weeks. Prior to Sunday's win, L.A. had lost four of its past six games, including two straight at the Staples Center for the first time since July 1998. So are the Sparks simply not playing well, or is the rest of the league just catching up? The buzz says it's a little of both.

On one hand, L.A. simply isn't as intimidating as it used to be. The Sparks still try and come out early and be physical, but teams aren't backing down, and some even seem to match up better than in the past. That's the beauty of futility -- you get high draft picks. And now teams have more weapons -- such as Indiana's Tamika Catchings -- to compete with and attack L.A.'s arsenal.

Another criticism several coaches have voiced is that the Sparks aren't playing good defense. Coach Michael Cooper, who has always emphasized a solid defensive game, might not agree, but at least statistically, this is a valid point. In 2000, the Sparks gave up 67.8 points per game. Last season, during L.A.'s championship run, it allowed 67.7 points. This summer, the Sparks are giving up 70.6 points per game.

Further proof could be found in that recent two-game skid at home, which occurred against teams not known for scoring. In its July 30 win over L.A., Miami scored 82 points. The Sol, who rank second to last in the league in scoring this season with a 64-point average, had scored more than 80 points in only one other game this season. Seattle, which is averaging 68 points, poured in 81 against the Sparks.

So things definitely won't be easy for L.A. as the regular season winds down, but here's the real kicker: Assuming L.A. does its job and holds onto first place in the West, the Sparks could then end up facing Seattle in the Western Conference semifinals. Yes, Seattle is only one game over .500, but the Storm could beat out Portland for the West's fourth and final playoff spot. And the Storm already have proven they can beat L.A., and in fact, are 2-1 against the Sparks this season. One final blow? The opening game of that series would be in Seattle.

Seattle or Portland? Storm or Fire?
The West's first three playoff berths are spoken for thanks to L.A., Houston and Utah. The fourth has come down to a battle between Portland and Seattle. The Fire appeared to have things clinched, but Seattle won five straight -- a streak that ended Sunday with a very disappointing loss to Minnesota -- to pull within a game of Portland.

SEASON SERIES OF NOTE
Portland vs. Seattle
June 2: Seattle 57, at Portland 47
June 11: Portland 70, at Seattle 63

Los Angeles vs. Portland
June 3: At L.A. 89, Portland 72
July 12: L.A. 82, at Portland 76 OT
July 24: At L.A. 73, Portland 69

Los Angeles vs. Seattle
June 18: L.A. 80, at Seattle 68
July 11: At Seattle 79, L.A. 60
Aug. 1: Seattle 81, at L.A. 76

Seattle has just three regular-season games remaining, but the one that could make or break the season happens Friday as the Storm host Portland. The teams are 1-1 this season, with each winning on the other's homecourt in early June. They haven't met since June 11.

This should be an incredible game. In the first meeting, a low-scoring 57-47 Seattle win on June 2, Portland committed 20 turnovers, shot 31 percent from the field and went 0-for-11 from 3-point range. The Storm were only slightly better, shooting 34.5 percent from the field and 15 percent from beyond the arc (2-for-13). Only one Portland player scored in double figures.

In the Fire's 70-63 win on June 11, three Portland players scored at least 10 points but the team committed 21 turnovers. Seattle had only 14 turnovers, but was 36 percent from the field and just 21 percent from 3-point range. Portland shot really well -- 49 percent from the field and 37 percent from downtown.

Obviously, Portland needs to take better care of the ball, and both teams need to shoot the ball much better than they have. Still, Sue Bird might be the X-factor. In the first game against the Fire, Seattle's rookie point guard went 0-for-6 from 3-point range. The second time around she scored 19 points but sank just 2 of 7 3-point attempts. Of course, that was only the sixth game of her professional career, and despite her 2-for-13 performance from 3-point range against Portland, Bird is shooting 39.8 percent (53-for-133) from 3-point range, which ranks 17th in the league, on the season.

In addition to playing each other, Portland also plays Orlando and Utah -- two potential playoff teams -- and then closes at home against Phoenix. Seattle's road is a bit tougher. The Storm host Utah, a team Seattle's 0-2 against this season, and then play at Sacramento.

So which will it be, Seattle or Portland? Over the years, I've learned never to bet against Pat Summitt. The Tennessee coach might lose now and then, but it's rare. So far, I'm learning the same rule applies to Bird. She knows how to win, and the ball is in her hands 80 percent of the time. Even when she's not shooting the ball well, she gets it to the right player and makes everybody else better. (Need an example? Kamila Vodichkova is a great player, but the fact she's getting nearly twice as many minutes this season isn't the only reason her scoring average has jumped more than four points.) And in a close game, Seattle's 3-point shooting, particularly Bird's, gives the Storm a legitimate chance to win it.

East notes
  • Right now, only Cleveland and Detroit have been eliminated from the playoff race. New York took over the East lead over the weekend, with Washington back two games. That leaves four teams -- Charlotte, Orlando, Miami and Indiana -- in the hunt for the final two playoff berths. And right now, if any of those teams can get on a two-game winning streak, they'll most likely make the playoffs.

  • Indiana and Miami are both five games back, but if the Fever can get into the playoffs, you have to consider Tamika Catchings as a legitimate candidate for MVP. She leads the league in steals per game (3.04) and overall steals (82), ranks second in scoring (17.9), fourth in rebounds (8.4), second in 3-point field goals (59), fourth in free throws (133), seventh in blocks per game (1.22) and 13th in assists (96).

  • New York is really the only team in the league that took its game to a new level after the All-Star break, and right now the Liberty are playing really good basketball. Don't count on them giving up the East's top spot.

  • Following its July 30 win at L.A., one might have expected Miami to pick up some momentum. But from July 19 to Aug. 2, the Sol played seven of eight games on the road, and after the big win at Staples Center (after which the team bus was nearly hijacked on L.A.'s freeways), closed the trip with back-to-back losses against Utah (in overtime) on Wednesday and New York on Friday. Miami really needed one of those games, however, but just couldn't find its legs.

    ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman is a former WNBA coach, general manager and player. She is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.