Sparks vs. Monarchs

Originally Published: September 19, 2004
By Nancy Lieberman | Special to ESPN.com

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LOS ANGELES (1) VS. SACRAMENTO (4)
Los Angeles Sparks (25-9), West No. 1
SPARKS STATS
PPG OPP FG 3FG FT REB
73.4 69.4 43.7 37.9 73.4 33.0
Sacramento Monarchs (18-16), West No. 4
MONARCHS STATS
PPG OPP FG 3FG FT REB
67.9 66.0 42.1 35.7 71.5 30.2
What's working: The Sparks' ability to continue playing at a high level despite a coaching change midway through the season is absolutely impressive. Instead of faltering after Michael Cooper left, the Sparks embraced the challenge, and their new head coach, and stepped up their game. L.A. has it all -- a dominant center, great passers and shooters and a wonderful inside-outside complement. And when Mwadi Mabika, Tamecka Dixon and Nikki Teasley are playing smart, solid basketball on the perimeter, L.A. is especially tough to beat.

Christi Thomas (9.5 points and 6.4 rebounds in September) and Tamika Whitmore have done a good job making up for the loss of injured DeLisha Milton-Jones. And Lisa Leslie (above) has truly set herself apart from the MVP challengers, elevating her game significantly since the Olympic break. She's a good passer out of the post and also very good at stepping back and reverse pivoting to beat the double team. Her presence defensively also is a boost as L.A.'s perimeter players know they can gamble and attempt the steal because Leslie (17.6 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 2.9 bpg) is behind them.
What's working: The Monarchs have one of the top inside presences in the league, as Yolanda Griffith (14.4 points per game), Tangela Smith (11.2) and DeMya Walker (8.3) combine for just less than 50 percent of the team's 68 points per game. Griffith (above), who was outstanding in the Olympics and has continued to play superbly since the break, and Smith might be the best 4-5 combination in the league.

Sacramento also has a quality bench, with its subs combining for 41 points. The Monarchs' reserve guards account for the bulk of it, with Kara Lawson (8.4) and Ruthie Bolton combining for 13 points off the bench.

However, Sacramento's starting backcourt, Ticha Penicheiro and Edna Campbell, combine for just 9.5 points.

The Monarchs are good rebounders who play good defense, and can be a great running team. And when they get perimeter scoring, especially from their starters, they can be fantastic.
What needs work: It's hard to find any faults with the Sparks, but they might be able to take better care of the ball.

They are such good passers who are so free and confident that they sometimes turn over the ball when they're whipping it around. Los Angeles averages 15.6 turnovers per game.
What needs work: For Sacramento, everything is set up by the team's perimeter shooting, which has been very inconsistent. When the guards hit the open shots, that opens up the drive, takes some pressure off Sacramento's inside game and allows the Monarchs to be more attacking. When the shots don't fall, the opponents can come out, clog up the middle and help send Sacramento's shooting percentage even lower.
X-factor: All we ever hear about is how good Los Angeles' offense is, which is fair. At 73.4 points per game, the Sparks boast the league's No. 1 offense, and are the WNBA's No. 1 shooting team, with 43.7 percent accuracy from the field.

But L.A.'s defense is just as vital. Sparks opponents shoot a league-low 38.9 percent from the field. The Sparks have excellent spacing and really are a tremendous 1 vs. 1 defensive team on the perimeter.

With that type of stingy defense, it's no wonder the Sparks are considered the clear-cut favorite heading into the playoffs.
X-factor: We said it two weeks ago, and we're sticking by the theory: Campbell can make or break this team. When she hits her shots, Sacramento wins. For example, in the Monarchs' first three games out of the break (all wins), Campbell scored 32 points and shot 59 percent (13-for-22) from the field, including a 6-of-11 mark from downtown. Over the next three games -- all losses -- Campbell totaled just eight points on 23 percent shooting (3-for-13 from field, 2-for-7 on 3-pointers).

When Campbell doesn't score, it adds pressure to Lawson and Bolton. One thing that might be affecting Campbell's offensive consistency is her defensive responsibilities. It's hard to find some gas in the tank and have good legs beneath you down the stretch after playing full-court defense.
How they match up: L.A. would have had an easier time had Phoenix clinched the West's final playoff spot. The Mercury's guards would have had a tough time keeping up with Mabika, Dixon and Teasley.

Instead, Leslie now faces one of the top inside trios in the game. Griffith, Smith and Walker are all athletic, and have a lot of fouls to give. Griffith matches up with Leslie better than most because she's just as big as the Sparks' center, a two-time WNBA Finals MVP. And because Griffith isn't a traditional post who prefers to sit on the low block, she'll make Leslie run the floor and work harder on defense. Of course, Leslie is used to playing a lot of minutes (she averages nearly 34 a game), but it'll be a challenge.

The Sparks and Monarchs split the season series 2-2, with each team winning once at home and once on the opposition's home court. Sacramento won the first two meetings -- the first by 17 points and then a seven-point victory. The Sparks evened the series with an 85-80 overtime win followed by a 65-52 victory on Sept. 12. Still, Sacramento was the only team to beat the Sparks more than once in the regular season.

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.

Nancy Lieberman

Basketball analyst / Writer
Nancy Lieberman, one of the most recognized individuals in women's basketball, is a men's and women's basketball analyst for ESPN. She works on ESPN and ESPN2's coverage of men's and women's college basketball, plus the WNBA and writes for ESPN.com.