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Monday, September 8, 2003
Shock athleticism makes L.A. threepeat tough feat

By Nancy Lieberman
Special to ESPN.com

Los Angeles' trip to the WNBA finals hasn't been easy, and it's only going to get tougher.

Sparks vs. Shock, Take I
Detroit and Los Angeles have played just once this season. The Shock won the game at home, 87-78 in overtime, on June 17. All five Sparks' starters scored in double-figures, but the Shock rallied from a 16-point deficit for the victory, which snapped L.A.'s 18-game winning streak and perfect 9-0 start to 2003. Lisa Leslie, hampered by foul trouble, was held to 13 points as Tamecka Dixon scored a team-high 22 for the Sparks. Swin Cash paced Detroit with 20 points; six Shock players scored at least 11 points.

Detroit matches up with Los Angeles -- which was pushed to three games in the first round and Western Conference finals -- better than any other team in the league.

The Shock's starting five players are just as athletic as the Sparks' starters. Detroit's frontline is big enough and aggressive enough to get L.A.'s Lisa Leslie and DeLisha Milton in foul trouble. And the Shock have proven they're tough mentally: Heading into the Eastern Conference finals, the Shock had trailed by nine or more pints in seven of their last eight games, but came back to win five of them.

And while it hasn't hindered the Shock so far, Detroit's lack of experience is really the only thing that separates the two teams in the WNBA finals. The 11 players on L.A.'s playoff roster have combined to appear in 1,636 WNBA games, and five Sparks have each played in at least 200 games.

The Shock, meanwhile, combine for 1,046 WNBA games. Other than Kedra Holland-Corn, no Detroit player has appeared in more than 140 games. L.A.'s playoff experience also can't be matched: Lisa Leslie and Mwadi Mabika nearly have more playoff appearances between the two of them (54) than the entire Detroit roster (59). Holland-Corn leads the Shock with 13 playoff appearances, followed by Ruth Riley's eight, but most of Detroit's players have played in five or fewer playoff games.

We'll break down the entire WNBA finals matchup later this week, but here are some of our first impressions on the championship series:

  • Depending on how much Deanna Nolan plays after suffering a bruised sacrum -- the triangular bone near the lower end of the spinal column -- in Game 1 , L.A. might use a 2-3 zone more often than usual to pack it in in the middle and better protect the Sparks' inside players from getting into foul trouble. This defensive formation might also force Detroit to be more of a jump-shooting team rather than a slashing team.

  • We could see some great matchups in the paint. Ruth Riley is a big, strong body who can match up with Leslie inside. Expect Leslie to try to go around Riley, not over her.

  • Sparks coach Michael Cooper won five NBA championship rings. Shock coach Bill Laimbeer won two with Detroit. Cooper helped the Los Angeles Lakers beat Laimbeer and the Detroit Pistons for the NBA title in 1988. The next year, Detroit and Laimbeer beat Cooper and the Lakers for the first of its two straight titles.

    And this series might very well be reminiscent of the old Pistons-Lakes series -- which means this could be a very physical, nasty championship.

    These two coaches were tremendously successful during their playing days and that confidence has carried over into their careers now on the sidelines. Each has done an excellent job of coaching, and Cooper and Laimbeer have truly raised the level of their players and are highly respected by their teams and peers.

    They've also imposed some of their own playing styles onto their teams. Like Cooper, Los Angeles plays with incredible defensive intensity, and he also has taught the Sparks all sorts of great little tricks, such as how to tie up a player. Laimbeer has instilled a toughness and winning mentality in the Shock we haven't seen before.

  • L.A. and Detroit played just once this season, with the Shock pulling out an 87-78 overtime win at home on June 17.

    And although Laimbeer correctly predicted publicly that his team would beat the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Sparks, who were 9-0 at the time and riding a league-best 18-game win streak, that game shouldn't be used as a predictor for this series.

    In mid-June, the season was barely three weeks old and neither team was at its best. Lisa Leslie was limited to 13 points because she was in foul trouble all game, getting whistled for three fouls just five minutes in and then committing her fifth foul with 13:36 to go.

    After the game, Cooper said, "Detroit ought to be glad because we gave them the game. This is a good present for them, but I guarantee you that there will not be another one.

    "They came to play, but you know what? We are the champions and we are still the champions until beaten.''

    But it does make you wonder what Laimbeer is predicting for the finals.

    Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.