Tuesday, August 20, 2002 Updated: August 22, 12:22 AM ET
Sparks to face much-improved Starzz
By Nancy Lieberman Special to ESPN.com
Many people might have expected Los Angeles to meet Houston in the Western Conference finals.
Utah's Natalie Williams could make or break the Western Conference finals.
But instead of facing the Comets, who were 2-1 against L.A. this season, the defending WNBA champion Sparks face Utah, which went 0-3 against L.A. during the regular season.
The Starzz, however, are playing much better now. We've said all along that Utah is a great team, but the Starzz proved they believed in themselves and that they can win big games on the road. Utah went into one of the greatest arenas, and in front of some of the best fans in the league, beat one of the WNBA's perennial powers to win their first playoff series.
Los Angeles and Utah are very similar. Both get great production from their starters, each boasting four players with double-figure scoring averages. They are also the top two scoring teams in the league, and while the Sparks are the WNBA's top rebounding team, the Starzz rank third. L.A. tops the league with a 44.5 field goal percentage, followed by Utah's 44.1 accuracy. And both shoot around 37 percent from 3-point range.
Needless to say, this is going to be a great series.
Los Angeles Sparks West seed: 1. Record: 27-7. Home record: 13-4. First round: Swept Seattle. Points for: 76.6. Points against: 69.8.
Skinny: At the end of the regular season, the Sparks looked uninspired, and during one particular five-game stretch, gave up 77.4 points a game. In the playoffs, however, L.A. is allowing just 60 ppg and looks very motivated. Offensively, the Sparks lead the league in points (76.6) and shooting percentage (44.5). The Sparks' league-best 18.2 assists per game means they move the ball around very effectively, which puts so much duress on opposing defenses. That extra pass really allows L.A. to get more open looks at the basket.
Coach Michael Cooper's recent move to start Marlies Askamp and then sub in DeLisha Milton has worked very well.
Utah Starzz West seed: 3. Record: 22-13. Home: 13-4. First round: Beat Houston 2-1. Points for: 75.6. Points against: 73.3.
Skinny: Four Utah starters average at least 10 points a game, and guard Jennifer Azzi isn't far behind with a 9.6 average. But this is a very starter-heavy team. In the double-overtime loss to Houston on Sunday, for example, the only players to score were the four starters in double-figures. Utah shoots 44.1 percent from the field and leads the league with 5.6 blocks per game.
While it's odd to label a former Olympian and All-Star as an X-factor, that's exactly what Natalie Williams has become. While she took very few touches and scored only five points in Game 1 with Houston, she then scored 19 in Game 2 and added eight rebounds and a career-high 25 points (on 11-for-16 shooting) in Game 3. When Williams is scoring and rebounding, she's not only taking possessions away from the other team but also forcing defenses to play tougher in the paint, which allows Marie Ferdinand and Adrienne Goodson to play more freely.
Two areas Utah needs to be wary of: The Starzz give up more points than any other team in the league and are 9-9 on the road this season.
Playoff schedule Aug. 22: Los Angeles at Utah, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN2 Aug. 24: Utah at Los Angeles, 4 p.m. ET, NBC Aug. 25: Utah at Los Angeles, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2 (if necessary)
Season series: L.A. 3-0 July 7: At Los Angeles 102, Utah 75 (Sparks shoot 53 percent from field, 10-for-16 from 3-point range) Aug. 4: At Los Angeles 90, Utah 86 (Byears hits basket with 11 seconds left as L.A. nearly blows 17-point lead) Aug. 9: Los Angeles 85, at Utah 77 (Leslie, Mabika combine for 37 points, 16 rebounds) 1: Nikki Teasley vs. Jennifer Azzi
Teasley, Los Angeles: In Game 1 against Seattle, the rookie failed to score and committed six turnovers before fouling out in 28 minutes. In Game 2, Teasley did just slightly better, scoring eight points in 24 minutes with five turnovers. Eleven turnovers in two games doesn't cut it in the playoffs. Utah is the second-highest scoring team in the league, and with five players who score at least 9.6 points, the last thing the Sparks want is to put the ball back in Utah's hands. Teasley must therefore stay focused and take better care of the ball. She also needs to continue to contribute offensively and take good shots. Against Seattle in the first round, L.A. played better when Tamecka Dixon played point guard. Azzi, Utah: In the series with Houston, she dished out 18 assists and committed just three turnovers. Azzi gets the ball to the right people, pushes tempo, looks ahead and hits the outside shot when Utah needs it (44 percent from beyond the arc). The only thing she might look to do is make herself more of an offensive factor. Azzi played 40 minutes in the double-overtime loss to Houston but didn't score a single point. Advantage: Azzi. Her game is just very solid and she takes care of the ball as well as anyone. That 10-assist, one-turnover performance against Houston on Tuesday was clutch.
2: Tamecka Dixon vs. Marie Ferdinand
Dixon, Los Angeles: You don't have to like her, but you have to like Dixon's competitive style and all the intangibles she brings to L.A. She's just a tough player who plays hard. If the ball's in her right hand, she's most likely going to drive. If the ball's in her left hand, she's going to pull up and hit a jumper. She uses that between-the-leg crossover to set up the rhythm for her foul-line jumper. Dixon plays hard on the defensive end, gives you a lot of minutes, is a good 3-point shooter and the team's second-best foul shooter. Ferdinand, Utah: Like Dixon, she's a slasher, an attacker and an All-Star. And although she's only a second-year player, Ferdinand proved her worth against Houston, guarding Sheryl Swoopes and helping Utah win its first playoff series. Ferdinand, who's interchangeable at the 2 or 3, is a great defender and very effective shooter, but she needs to work on her 3-point shooting (14 percent from downtown) to reach the next level. Opposing teams often lay off her a bit, waiting for her to drive to the basket or pull up. But if she stretches out her game to the 3-point arc, she'll force them to play more honestly and open up some spacing. Ferdinand had an amazing series against Houston, averaging 17.3 points. Advantage: Even. This one's a toss up. They're both great players and you can't pick one.
3: Mwadi Mabika vs. Adrienne Goodson
Mabika, Los Angeles: She's having a career year and has been a big part of L.A.'s success this season. She has ups, a handle, can penetrate right or left, is a good passer, a good rebounder and gets after you defensively. Goodson, Utah: She doesn't have the lift that Mabika has, but Goodson is so smart and effective. She knows where and how to get her points and can hurt you at the foul line, off of jumpers, steals or rebounds. Goodson can stumble her way to 10-12 points a night pretty easily. Advantage: Even. The big question is whether Goodson can guard Mabika.
4: Marlies Askamp vs. Natalie Williams
Askamp, Los Angeles: She's a banger and smart player, a veteran who has been to the playoffs before. Askamp runs the floor really well, but she tends to miss chippies and more easy layups than most players. Cooper's recent game plan means starting Askamp, then subbing in DeLisha Milton for some added firepower and fresh legs about 5 to 6 minutes into the game. Williams, Utah: She had a great series against Houston, and like always, got some key offensive rebounds. Williams is deadly on the low block and is one of the best finishers in the game. She also has great hands, and is very difficult to defend. If you don't box her out, she'll use her body to push you under the basket while she grabs another rebound. The key to playing her is that you have to be the one to initiate contact. If she does, that usually means you're in trouble. One thing Williams has to be wary of is getting into foul trouble. She needs to play as close to 40 minutes as possible every game in this series. Advantage: Williams. And it's not even a close race. She has just taken her game to another level mentally and physically.
5: Lisa Leslie vs. Margo Dydek
Leslie, Los Angeles: The all-everything center dominated Seattle, averaging 23.5 points in that series. But what was really impressive was seeing Leslie dive for loose balls and making incredible defensive stops. She played hard and let it all hang out, and it's always fun to see a team's best player put it all on the line. She can shoot the 3, take you off the dribble and pass out of double-teams. And while her scoring average is down this year -- something a lot of critics have pointed at -- she also has a much better supporting cast around her. She might not have to do as much as in the past, but she's still a big-time player who gives her best in big-time situations. Dydek, Utah: She has played OK against L.A. so far this season, averaging 9.7 points and 5.0 rebounds, and offers a lot of diversity. Dydek shoots runners off one foot, drives the baseline, makes one-handed passouts, plays that are pretty amazing for a 7-foot-2 player, especially considering there aren't many 6-5 players who can do those things. Dydek is having her best season in the WNBA, and is always capable of coming up with a double-double. Dydek has an incredible reach (just ask Tina Thompson and Michelle Snow), and if you get caught behind her defensively, the Starzz just throw the ball to the rim as Dydek stands there for the layup. Advantage: Leslie. We've said it before and we'll say it again -- she's the best center in the world. There's nobody better.
L.A.'s top four subs -- Milton, Latasha Byears, Sophia Witherspoon and Nicky McCrimmon -- could be starters for some teams. Milton is the team's third-leading scorer (11.3 ppg), a very proficient shooter (49 percent from field, 42 percent from 3-point range) and a great foul shooter and rebounder. McCrimmon is a good 3-point shooter. Witherspoon has played in many big games, first with New York and now with the Sparks. She's smart, too, and if Mabika isn't playing well, L.A. doesn't lose that much with Witherspoon coming in. Byears, the Sparks' fifth-leading scorer, gives them points (7.0), rebounds (5.4), hard fouls and a winning attitude. She's also an intimidator and one of the team's top offensive rebounders. Utah, on the other hand, pretty much has no bench. In the last game against Houston, each of the Starzz starters played at least 36 minutes. Semeka Randall got eight minutes of action. So if you're a Utah team member, you're most likely not going to play unless someone's tired or in foul trouble. So either Utah's starters are going to take the Starzz to the promised land, or they aren't going there. Advantage: Los Angeles.
Michael Cooper, Los Angeles: For a while I had been critical of L.A.'s defense. Toward the end of the regular season, the Sparks gave up 77.4 points per game over a five-game stretch that included three home losses. But Cooper has lit into the Sparks and in the last five games, they've allowed only 62.2 points. That's how they're going to win. Candi Harvey, Utah: This is a very good team, full of great scorers, talented athletes and balance. Utah obviously isn't afraid of the Sparks, but the Starzz have to play better defense and come up with a huge win on the road. They were able to do it in Houston, and now again will need to bear down and get after it defensively. Advantage: Cooper. He has been here before and has more versatility on his roster.
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.