Sunday, August 25, 2002 Updated: August 29, 12:07 PM ET
Can tested Liberty overcome high-flying Sparks?
By Nancy Lieberman Special to ESPN.com
After Los Angeles swept Utah, coach Michael Cooper said he hadn't seen the Sparks play better, and he's right.
Tamecka Dixon is one of five players appearing in their first major competition with the U.S. senior team.
While L.A. seemed a little uninspired toward the end of the regular season, the Sparks have stepped it up a notch in the playoffs. The inside players have been putting up great numbers, the outside shooters have been phenomenal, the bench has had some big games and the defense is hitting its stride.
L.A. also is well rested after sweeping its first two playoff series and is the obvious favorite. But you can't count out New York, which proved its resiliency by coming back to beat Indiana and Washington after losing the opening games in both series.
The big question mark for the Liberty is fatigue. New York, appearing in the WNBA finals for the fourth time in six years, might be tired both mentally and physically after playing six emotional playoff games in 10 days. New York needs to get some rest during the early part of the week and then open the WNBA championship with a strong performance at home in Madison Square Garden on Thursday.
L.A. and New York met twice in the regular season, splitting the series with each winning on its home court. But remember that L.A. is playing a lot better now than it did at any point of the season.
Los Angeles Sparks West seed: 1. Overall: 29-7. Playoffs: 4-0. Home record: 14-4. First round: Swept Seattle. Conference final: Swept Utah. Points for in playoffs: 81.2. Points against in playoffs: 66.0.
Skinny: The Sparks are playing the best basketball they've played all season, and if this is what they were waiting for, it was worth the wait. Right now, everything is working right -- they're confident, executing and getting some tremendous play off the bench.
The Sparks are hitting all cylinders in their key areas of offense -- they're getting fast-break points, shooting 40.3 percent from 3-point range (and the entire starting five can shoot the 3) and 46 percent from the field. They're averaging just 12.8 turnovers, giving up only 66 points and outrebounding foes, too. They are dominating every statistical category that matters.
DeLisha Milton is playing some great basketball, and down low, nobody has more post moves than Lisa Leslie. But what's really impressive about these two inside players? In the playoffs, Leslie is shooting 66.7 percent from 3-point range and Milton is hitting 61.5 percent of her 3-pointers. That's amazing. It's no wonder they cause such incredible matchup problems at the 4.
New York Liberty East seed: 1. Overall: 22-16. Playoffs: 4-2. Home record: 14-6. First round: Beat Indiana 2-1. Conference final: Beat Washington 2-1. Points for in playoffs: 76.8. Points against in playoffs: 71.2.
Skinny: When it counts, New York really finds a way to win -- the Liberty are 10-3 in elimination playoff games. They also reached the WNBA finals in 1997, 1999 and 2000. This season they're back again, becoming the first team in WNBA history to win two series in the same postseason after trailing 0-1 in each.
Tamika Whitmore and Tari Phillips are the keys for New York. They're playing very well together and combine to average 33 points a game. They need to come out and score, and go at Leslie and Milton and maybe get the Sparks into foul trouble.
This is the series everybody thought would happen last year, and this is the perfect matchup to end the season. You've got Leslie, Teresa Weatherspoon, the Garden. The list of storylines goes on and on.
Playoff schedule Thursday, Aug. 29: Los Angeles at New York, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2 Saturday, Aug. 31: New York at Los Angeles, 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC Sunday, Sept. 1: New York at Los Angeles, 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC (if necessary)
Season series: Split 1-1
Whitmore is averaging 19.5 points for New York in the series. Leslie is averaging 15 points and 12.5 rebounds. Phillips and Vickie Johnson are New York's leading rebounders in the series, pulling down an average of 5.5 boards per game. May 25: At Los Angeles 72, New York 64
Weatherspoon went 0-for-2 in 26 minutes as New York shoots 34.8 percent from field and 25 percent from 3-point range in league season opener; L.A. led by just one at halftime; Leslie scores all 14 of her points in second half, and adds 14 rebounds and seven blocks; four Sparks score at least 12 points. July 18: At New York 72, Los Angeles 59
Whitmore shoots 11-for-14 for 25 points; score tied with 15 minutes to play, but New York clinched it with 11-0 run that spanned the last five minutes of the game; Sparks' offensive output second-lowest performance of season (L.A. scored 58 in loss to Houston on June 30). 1: Nikki Teasley vs. Teresa Weatherspoon
Teasley, Los Angeles: After struggling in the first round against Seattle, Teasley turned things around in the conference finals. The rookie point guard committed 11 turnovers in two games against the Storm, but took much better care of the ball against Utah. In Game 2 on Saturday, Teasley had 11 points, nine assists and no turnovers (she didn't have any turnovers in Game 1, either), and proved she can score and deliver the ball. I was very impressed with her improvement from one week to the next. Weatherspoon, New York: She simply understands what she needs to do to get her team to a different level and really continues to impress me every time I see her play. During the regular season we criticized Weatherspoon for her low offensive production, but she has lifted her scoring average and looked to attack a bit more in the postseason and done all the little things New York needs her to do. She's a great passer and great leader with great vision. Advantage: Weatherspoon. She's a proven veteran who has made four finals appearances. And like Magic Johnson, she can still dominate a game even if she doesn't score a lot of points.
2: Tamecka Dixon vs. Vickie Johnson
Dixon, Los Angeles: She's playing out-of-this-world basketball right now, and there's nothing she can't do. Dixon scores, rebounds, defends, takes great shots, passes the ball well and correctly reads the situations she's facing. She's also a great complement to Teasley in the backcourt. In the postseason, Dixon is shooting 53.7 percent from the field, 50 percent from 3-point range, 90 percent at the foul line and averaging 13.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.5 steals. It doesn't get a lot better than that, and I don't know many other players who are playing better than she is right now in the playoffs. Johnson, New York: She came up huge Saturday, sinking all five of her 3-pointers, and then went 7-for-10 from the field Sunday for 19 points. But Johnson has been up and down in the playoffs and really needs to come with some consistency in the finals. It must start with Game 1. Johnson scored just four points in each of her Game 1 performances against Washington and Indiana, going 2-for-6 against the Mystics and 1-for-7 against the Fever. If she plays like that in Game 1 come Thursday, Los Angeles will win. Advantage: Dixon. I haven't seen her play this well in her career, and that's saying a lot considering she's a two-time All-Star.
3: Mwadi Mabika vs. Crystal Robinson
Mabika, Los Angeles: In the playoffs, Mabika is averaging 14 points, seven rebounds and 4.5 assists. The bad news for New York is that she's capable of putting up even better numbers. Mabika hits clutch shots and gets a lot of open looks, but she's struggling with her long-range shot, hitting just 26 percent from beyond the arc. Mabika is having a career year, creates a lot of opportunities off the dribble, is a great perimeter defender and usually is able to help stretch the defense with her 3-point shooting. Robinson, New York: She's a gamer, a stud, a clutch player for New York who shoots 34 percent from 3-point range. And for the Liberty to come away with their first WNBA title, Robinson has to score in this series and help shoulder some of New York's offensive responsibilities. She struggled a bit Sunday -- her shot was short and she scored just three points, although she was averaging 10.2 points through the first five playoff games. But she's perfect from the foul line, going 9-for-9 in the playoffs. Advantage: Mabika. Robinson's a great player, but not as athletic as Mabika, a matchup nightmare for just about anybody in the league. Like Sheryl Swoopes, Mabika is all over the place and tough to defend.
4: Lisa Leslie vs. Tari Phillips
Leslie, Los Angeles: She's big, strong, quick, and playing with a hop in her step and an incredible amount of intensity and focus. It's as if Swoopes getting the league MVP award only motivated Leslie to take her game to another level. In the playoffs, she's shooting 54 percent from the field and 66 percent from 3-point range and averaging 21 points (second only to Swoopes), 7.8 rebounds, 3.2 blocks, 2.5 steals, 2.0 assists and only 1.2 turnovers -- that's as close to perfection as you're going to get. Phillips, New York: Both Whitmore and Phillips might end up matching up with Leslie. Phillips is a tremendous player and I love everything about her game, but she doesn't have the range that Leslie does. Phillips scored 21 points on 10-for-13 shooting in Game 1 against Washington. She's playing really well and getting to the boards. Advantage: Leslie. Nobody's better.
5: DeLisha Milton vs. Tamika Whitmore
Milton, Los Angeles: With 17 points in Game 1 and 19 points in Game 2 against Utah, she's earned her way back into L.A.'s starting lineup. For Milton, the bottom line is winning, and she'll do whatever it takes, from rebounding to shooting the 3 really well. In the playoffs, she's averaging 13.3 points and shooting 61 percent from 3-point range. Milton has made herself into a great scorer and one of the best defenders in the league. People hate to play against her because she's so physical. The Sparks are known for their tough defensive mentality and for coming out and playing hard. Milton is the catalyst. Whitmore, New York: New York's leading scorer, Whitmore is averaging 18.8 points and shooting 62 percent from the field. She's knocking down shots and hurting you at the foul line, too, sinking 72 percent of her free throws. She's playing hard and posting hard, and Whitmore is what Adubato has been waiting for inside. Advantage: Even. These are two warriors who will be knocking each other around, diving for balls and going for rebounds. This is a great matchup.
L.A.'s top four subs -- Marlies Askamp, Latasha Byears, Sophia Witherspoon and Nicky McCrimmon -- add a lot to the Sparks. Witherspoon and McCrimmon, in particular, can shoot the 3 very well and can really help stretch the defenses and take a lot of double teams away from Leslie and Milton. Byears is averaging 6.5 points and has been relentless physically, especially on the boards. And nobody knows New York better than Witherspoon. Becky Hammon and Sue Wicks are New York's big weapons off the bench. Wicks really disrupts the opposing defense, and Hammon can really jump start your offense. She's averaging 8.7 points in the playoffs while shooting 52.8 percent from the field and nearly 43 percent on 3-pointers. No one else on the Liberty bench, however, averages more than 12 minutes or 2.7 points. Advantage: Los Angeles. The Sparks' bench is just marvelous. In Game 1 against Utah when Milton was coming off the bench, L.A.'s reserves contributed 28 points.
Michael Cooper, Los Angeles: He's a championship coach and has done a great job of coaching in the playoffs. The Sparks totally dismantled Utah in the Western Conference finals. L.A. creates a lot of matchup problems across the board, and Cooper knows how to take advantage of them. Richie Adubato, New York: He's an unbelievable coach and has his players doing everything he has asked for, from Weatherspoon's increased scoring to increased productivity from the bench. The team's chemistry is amazing, too, and that's a direct result of Adubato's leadership. Against Indiana and Washington, New York took away both opponents' strengths. The team isn't deep, but it's good, and is a great collection of veteran players. Advantage: Even. Both are exceptional coaches.
Right now, I don't see any team that can beat L.A. The Sparks are just playing so well and have so much balance with a really efficient inside-outside combination.
If New York wins the championship, it's going to win ugly. The Liberty will grind it out, and will win the series with defense. The key for New York is to take away L.A.'s fast break -- as the Liberty did against the Fever and Mystics. New York needs to make it a half-court game and keep the score low.
If the score is in the 60s, that definitely favors New York. But if the Sparks start scoring 80 or 90 points, that's bad news for New York. Nobody has more offensive firepower than L.A.
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.