Sparks get last invite, could crash West party

Updated: August 28, 2005, 5:30 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

So … after all this, the Los Angeles Sparks are going to the playoffs. After being plagued by injuries and a season-long wait to be rid of coach Henry Bibby, the Sparks could still "celebrate" after their 26-point loss to Houston as the regular season ended Saturday night.

PLAYOFF PREVIEW
For more coverage of the 2005 WNBA playoffs, check out the following links:

• Preview: Indiana-New York
• Preview: Seattle-Houston

Nancy Lieberman:
• Back injury won't stop Jackson
• Monarchs-Sparks
• Storm-Comets
• Sun-Shock
• Fever-Liberty

Mechelle Voepel:
• L.A. as West party crasher?
• Don't overlook Fever, Shock

• Playoff schedule
• WNBA.com's playoffs coverage
• WNBA.com: Playoff history

The Sparks' old friends (har-har), the Seattle Storm, did L.A. the inadvertent favor of beating Phoenix on Saturday, shutting the frustrated Mercury out of the postseason. Which means the Sparks' other old friends (har-har), the Sacramento Monarchs, get the pleasure of meeting L.A in the playoffs again.

Meanwhile, Seattle takes on Houston as two players both deserving of the MVP award -- the Storm's Lauren Jackson and the Comets' Sheryl Swoopes -- face off. Although both had issues in their regular-season finales, with Jackson leaving the game due to back pain and Swoopes not playing at all because of a stomach virus.

Sparks fans were probably a bit nauseated after seeing how their team got clobbered in Texas … but knowing L.A. was headed to the postseason probably had a Pepto-Bismal effect. Hey, at least the ball is still bouncing for the Sparks.

Sure, they're 17-17, the last team into the playoffs and -- by all statistical accounts -- the team least likely of the four to be the Western Conference representative in the WNBA Finals. The Sparks enter the postseason like a boxer who received a couple of standing eight counts, then landed a flurry of punches and got back into the fight … and then got wobbly again after taking a blow flush in the face.

L.A.'s offense was so anemic at Houston, you wondered if a flock of vampire bats hadn't attacked the Sparks in their hotel before the game. Or … could it have been that after seeing the Mercury lose at Seattle, the Sparks knew they were already in the playoffs and just eased up -- unconsciously, perhaps -- against the Comets?

Whatever the case, center Lisa Leslie put up a "team-high" nine points as the Sparks shot 34.6 percent from the field. We'll see what having new life in the postseason will mean for the team that was the preseason projection to be the champion.

Remember, the Sparks were 12-15 on Aug. 10 following a loss at New York. At that point, they'd lost three in a row and six of seven, with only poor San Antonio providing their respite victory.

Still, after that game at New York, L.A.'s Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamecka Dixon said hope wasn't dead yet. They knew all the Sparks needed to do was somehow get into the playoffs, and then the slates were clean again. It didn't matter what kind of jumbled, inconsistent mess the regular season was. Kind of like how, supposedly, once you get your first job, your college GPA no longer matters.

Then Bibby and the team parted ways on Aug. 16. The Sparks lost to Sacramento that night, but it seemed like L.A. was getting a new lease on the season, albeit a very late one.

It's not actually accurate to say the Sparks backed into the playoffs, even though the last step at Houston was like falling through the doorway. Before that, L.A. won four in a row and five of six. Included were wins over playoff teams Indiana, Detroit and Houston.

And, avoiding what would have been an unbearable loss to live with in the offseason, Holdsclaw and Leslie rallied the Sparks to a three-point victory in the Silver Stars' last stand on Friday in the Alamo City.

L.A. is still dealing with the same problems: Mwadi Mabika is not 100 percent, Nikki Teasley is injured and not playing and, although it got them Holdsclaw, trading DeLisha Milton-Jones left the Sparks without that consistent defensive enforcer and perfect partner with Leslie inside.

So how far can Leslie and Holdsclaw take this team? The Sparks were 1-3 against Sacramento in the regular season, with the victory coming June 11 in L.A.. Holdsclaw had a dominant performance in that game, with 25 points and seven rebounds. Tamika Whitmore had 19 points, but that was during her most effective stretch this season. Whitmore scored in double figures in six of the Sparks' nine games in June, but has only reached that mark four times in the 20 games since.

Sacramento eliminated the Sparks in the first round last season, and the Monarchs enter the postseason having won 12 of their last 14 games. Sacramento had the best record in the Western Conference and the second-best record in the league behind Connecticut.

Yet you know there is a feeling in Sacramento that this opening series is much scarier than it appears on paper and needs to be a door-slamming for the Monarchs. Because in spite of all the Sparks' woes this season, nobody wants to risk letting them see any more daylight.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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