Sparks take aim at recapturing WNBA crown

LOS ANGELES -- Call it coming full circle.

Three months ago, the Los Angeles Sparks got spanked 90-67 in their season opener at Seattle. On Friday, the Sparks return to the scene of that drubbing as they begin the WNBA playoffs with a first-round series against the Storm.

The Sparks rebounded from that inauspicious start to capture the Western Conference's top seed. But the Storm, the division's No. 4 seed, got the best of L.A. again -- rather convincingly, actually -- in their second meeting and hold a 2-1 edge over L.A. this season. Seattle's only loss in the series was a 71-70 heartbreaker at home on July 30.

Win or lose, Sparks coach Joe Bryant easily recalls each matchup.

"Remember at the first game of the season we were still trying to get our thing together and [the Storm] beat us pretty good," Bryant said following his team's victory over Minnesota in the regular-season finale Sunday. "Then they came here and were playing without Lauren Jackson and they just really used their speed to beat us. Then we had a helluva game up there, beating them by one, but actually we had control of the whole game."

The top-seeded Sparks (25-9), who concluded the regular season with consecutive victories over defending WNBA champ Sacramento (a team they could face in the Western Conference finals) and Minnesota, will need to be in control 24/7 if they expect to get past the pesky Storm (18-16). The No. 4 seed in the West, however, is coming off a two-game losing streak. Seattle stumbled into the playoffs after consecutive losses to San Antonio and Houston.

Storm forward Lauren Jackson, the league's fourth-leading scorer, didn't play in the regular-season finale so she could rest up for the playoffs. Jackson has battled stress fractures all season and has been further hindered by plantar fasciitis in her left foot. Likewise, Bryant sat forward Chamique Holdsclaw, the league's 11th-best scorer despite not starting a single game, against hapless Minnesota because she has been hampered by a foot injury, too.

But while it might appear that the Storm, who were 2-2 against L.A. last season, have had little trouble extinguishing their West Coast rivals in the past, the Sparks fully intend to flip the script during the best-of-three series.

"I really think they think they can beat us," Bryant said. "We're looking forward to that. We're looking forward to the challenge."

Those sentiments were echoed by Sparks center Lisa Leslie. After playing overseas during the offseason for the first time in 10 years, Leslie is coming off the best scoring season of her career (20.0 points per game). She believes the Sparks can return to their dominant form of a few years ago. The two-time WNBA champs collected their last league trophy in 2002 and the last of their three conference titles in 2003.

"I feel that we have enough people to get it done," Leslie said when asked about the Sparks' chances to advance. "I really like our team. I like our hunger. Even though we're in first place, we don't have that first-place swagger. This team is still kind of not sure, and that not sure is good because they play hard.

"Hopefully we can stay there. I know some people might get a little wide-eyed and nervous during that first game, and it will be interesting to see how we respond. Obviously, I've been there, Mwadi [Mabika] has been there and Chamique's been in the playoffs, as well. So in terms of experience, we don't have much."

Leslie is right about that, but at least the Sparks' three rookies are looking forward to the challenge. Lisa Willis has been playing the best off the bench, averaging 4.6 points per game. Tiffany Stansbury took advantage of the season-high 16 minutes that Bryant let her play on Sunday to score her first career points (6) against the Lynx. Brandi Davis is averaging about three points per game.

"I think we have the momentum and we're going to play off of that," said Stansbury, who had played in only three games for a total of six minutes until Sunday.

Added Willis: "We're ready to go. We're confident and excited. We just have to play basketball and play like we've been playing, and we'll be fine."

All of that sounds really swell, but how does Bryant plan on stopping savvy veterans such as Jackson, Betty Lennox and Sue Bird, who are averaging 19.5, 13.7 and 11.4 points, respectively? And then there's 6-foot-5 Janell Burse (11.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg), who is back in Seattle's lineup after a shoulder injury slowed her during the final weeks of the regular season.

Bryant is concerned about all of those players (and Storm guard Iziane Castro Marques, too) and plans on opening up his bag of tricks.

"You know when I think they are really dangerous? It's when Castro Marques and Lennox really get out in transition," Bryant said. "So we just have to find a way to run with them or find a situation where we find them under the basket on the defensive end. So I've got a couple of things up my sleeve. I've been in this game a long time, and I think sometimes you just have to make some changes."

Leslie, whose Sparks gave up 12.3 points per game to Castro Marques -- five more than her regular-season average -- concurred.

"We really have to do a good job of keeping up with them," Leslie said. "They run the floor a lot and they're fast. They get out well. With Lauren and I, we pretty much X each other out in points, so I don't think that's been an issue. But the X factor has been Marques. She's had really good games against us. We have to really stop those players who should not score a lot of points."

If the Sparks advance past the Storm, the road doesn't get that much easier. All four teams in the Western Conference playoff picture have won at least one WNBA championship. There might be beasts in the East, but the best beasties are clearly in the West this year.

"Wow!" Holdsclaw said when asked about the teams the Sparks might face down the road. "It's going to be really tough, and we're just going to pick it up and take it to another level and step it up. We're going to have to read, sleep and eat basketball for, like, two and a half weeks. A lot of us haven't been there, but we're going to have to sacrifice that much time."

The Sparks feel they are a better team fundamentally and mentally this year. Bryant says his team is more relaxed and confident. "They don't feel that if they make a mistake that someone's looking over their shoulder or that I'm going to take them out of the game," he said.

Leslie sees a difference on the defensive end.

"We could not make defensive stops, and we were very up and down," she said. "One day, one team would show up that was strong, and the next day it was like, 'what?' We were not consistent in that area."

Added Holdsclaw: "Last year I felt we weren't as hungry. This year we have players who have been there -- and not saying that they didn't work hard -- but the approach was a little different. This year with this bunch, you've got players who have been with a few WNBA teams that haven't really stuck and they're hungry. You have people who haven't really won anything and they've got that behind them, that energy. And then you have some rookies with their first chance in the big leagues and they want to prove that they can do well.

"It's just a great mix -- great chemistry."

Miki Turner, a freelance TV producer and writer in Los Angeles, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at dmiki@aol.com.