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The Spark Is Back With mainstay Lisa Leslie healthy and peaking, Los Angeles is raring for a WNBA three-peat

On July 13 the West was pulling away from the East in the WNBA
All-Star Game, but Los Angeles Sparks center (and West starting
forward) Lisa Leslie was sitting glumly in a Madison Square
Garden trainer's room thinking her season was over. The doctors
examining her had just watched a replay of Leslie's violent
collision with Detroit Shock forward Swin Cash and were convinced
that Leslie had torn her right anterior cruciate and medial
collateral ligaments.

Leslie's spirits--and the two-time defending champion Sparks'
prospects for a three-peat in the postseason, which begins this
week--brightened as soon as the MRI was read. The diagnosis: a
severe bruise. "When I came out after the MRI, everyone [at
Manhattan's Beth Israel Hospital] was cheering because they said
nothing was torn," says Leslie.

Nevertheless, there was a rip in her team's fabric. Los Angeles
had come into the All-Star break with a 15-3 record and a 4
1/2-game cushion atop the Western Conference standings. But the
swelling in Leslie's knee kept her out of 11 games, a stretch
during which the Sparks went 4-7 and fell to second place behind
the Houston Comets. Leslie's was not the only injury L.A.
suffered: Two other starters, guard Tamecka Dixon and forward
DeLisha Milton, missed four and three games, respectively, with
leg woes. The Sparks' roster was already thin because sturdy
forward Latasha Byears had been waived on June 10 so she could
deal with what the team called a "personal matter." (The Los
Angeles County district attorney's office later acknowledged that
Byears was being investigated for allegedly participating in a
sexual assault of an unnamed former teammate, a probe that is
ongoing.) And last Friday reserve center Rhonda Mapp was
dismissed from the league for violating its antidrug program.

Not surprisingly, the Sparks missed their 6'5" pivotwoman the
most. At 31, Leslie, the WNBA's 2001 regular-season and Finals
MVP, has refused to rest on her laurels. This year she decided to
pattern her game after that of San Antonio Spurs forward Tim
Duncan. "If he's Mr. Fundamental, then she's Miss Fundamental,"
says L.A. coach Michael Cooper. Duncan should be flattered:
Despite missing almost a third of the season, Leslie was still in
the league's top five in 15 statistical categories through Sunday
and has an outside shot at another MVP award. "Every year I've
seen her game elevate," says Sparks forward-center Jennifer
Gillom, a six-year WNBA veteran. "She's at her peak right now."

In some respects the absences were a blessing in disguise for
L.A. Backup guards Nikki McCrimmon and Shaquala Williams got
valuable game exposure. Moreover, says assistant coach Ryan
Weisenberg, "Lisa and DeLisha got refreshed. They came back
hungry." Indeed, after the duo returned on Aug. 14, they led the
team to two consecutive wins. Milton scored 21 and 18 points,
respectively, in victories over the Minnesota Lynx and Houston,
and earned Player of the Week honors. At week's end the Sparks
had clinched first place in the West.

"Our intensity went up tenfold when Lisa came back, and it became
like a playoff atmosphere even during practice," says Weisenberg.
Cooper redoubled that intensity by holding
two-a-days--particularly unusual for a veteran squad like the
Sparks, who have five players 30 or older.

The L.A. players feel the hard practices have helped them get
back on track. "We're definitely moving toward our normal
championship swagger," says Leslie.

Can the Sparks three-peat? "I think they're getting confident
because they're healthy," says Seattle Storm coach Anne Donovan,
whose team narrowly missed the playoffs. She cites another point
in Los Angeles's favor: "All season long the Sparks have played
close games and come out on top. I think that experience will
help them."

But not as much as that favorable MRI reading on Leslie's knee.

COLOR PHOTO: JUAN OCAMPO/WNBAE/GETTY IMAGES (TOP) FULL STRENGTH Relieved after her MRI scare, the 31-year-old Leslie returned to give L.A. her usual dominating inside play.


Four Keys to the Playoffs

KATIE SMITH MUST SCORE Minnesota made the postseason for the
first time in franchise history, but how far it will go will
depend on veteran shooting guard Smith. Smith (18.2 points per
game) averaged 20.5 points in Lynx wins and 15.7 points in its

interim Sacramento coach John Whisenant guided his team to an
11-3 record by unleashing point guard Ticha Penicheiro in an
up-tempo offense. The Monarchs are the league's hottest team.

DETROIT MUST GROW UP--FAST Bill Laimbeer will win Coach of the
Year for leading a very young team to the Eastern Conference
title, but the Shock's inexperience could be telling in the
playoffs. Only three players--guard Kedra Holland-Corn,
forward-center Astou Ndiaye-Diatta and center Ruth Riley--have
played in the postseason.

THE STING MUST KEEP THE CLAMPS ON Defense will be key for
Charlotte. In the regular season the Sting not only scored the
fewest points (65.3 average) of any playoff team but also allowed
the second fewest points in the league (64.4). --T.B.