Sparks Looking to Close It Out

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There may be one coronation today at Staples Center, but the Sparks are hoping for two.

In a pregame ceremony, Lisa Leslie is expected to receive the WNBA most-valuable-player award from league President Val Ackerman.

Once the game is played the Sparks hope to be anointed Western Conference champions.

A victory over the Sacramento Monarchs today--tipoff is at 2 p.m.--will put the Sparks in the WNBA finals for the first time. They lead the best-of-three series, 1-0, after their 74-73 victory Friday in Sacramento.

A win today would serve the dual purpose of ending the series and earning the Sparks' key players some rest before the finals.

Unlike in the first-round series against Houston, in which he went to the bench more frequently, Coach Michael Cooper kept his player rotation small Friday. Only seven players were used, and only six scored.

The starters--Tamecka Dixon, Ukari Figgs, Lisa Leslie, Mwadi Mabika and DeLisha Milton--all scored in double figures but also logged heavy minutes, ranging from Milton's 28 to Mabika's 38.

Latasha Byears, who had seven points, probably would have played more than 20 minutes but was restricted by five fouls.

Cooper said there are other players he can turn to today--"I wouldn't be surprised to see Rhonda Mapp"--but otherwise will keep playing this hand.

"This is the point of the season where people have to play big minutes," Cooper said. "You want your starters out there to get the job done.

"We're still deep, and I'm not worried about burning people out. But now is not the time to be tired. In order for your horses to do their job, they have to be out there on the floor. If they're playing well, let them play."

Figgs said the Sparks will try not to give the Monarchs a reason to believe they can come back and win the series at Staples Center, where Los Angeles has not lost this year.

"That's why we worked hard in the regular season to get home-court advantage, knowing that if we won or lost the first game we had two games here," Figgs said.

"We'll go into the game confident like we have been, because we know we'll play hard and give ourselves a chance to win. We definitely don't want our playoffs to end the way they did last year, and to go home feeling the way we did. We're going to play our hardest. If we win, good. If we don't, we have another chance [Monday]."

Because Saturday was a travel day, the Monarchs--who planned to work out in Sacramento before flying to Los Angeles--did not meet with the media.

That's probably good for the Monarchs, who have done a lot of talking already.

Before the series began, a couple of Sacramento players--most notably reserve center Kara Wolters (who didn't play Friday)--said they were being overlooked by the Sparks.

But until the Monarchs--who have lost all four meetings against the Sparks this season and have never beaten them in the playoffs--win a game they are not giving the Sparks anything to fear.

Both teams are built along similar lines, starting with a dominant center--the Sparks' Leslie and the Monarchs' Yolanda Griffith--and fanning out to sleek forwards and quick guards.

But even if the offensive philosophies are similar, there's a marked difference in each team's application of defense. In four games this year, the Monarchs have shot better than 40% against the Sparks only once. Los Angeles has shot 50% or higher twice against Sacramento.

Cooper insists that rebounding remains the key, and the Sparks' ability to keep Griffith from dominating the boards is a top priority. "We have to match her intensity and competitive nature," he said.

The Monarchs have to find some reason to believe their season will not end today.

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WNBA Playoffs

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

Sparks vs. Sacramento

(Sparks lead, 1-0)

Game 2, today at Staples Center, 2 p.m. (ESPN2)

Game 3 (if necessary), Monday at Staples Center, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

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EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

New York vs. Charlotte

(New York leads, 1-0)

Game 2, today at New York, 11 a.m. PDT (Channel 4)

Game 3 (if necessary), Monday at New York, 5 p.m. PDT (ESPN)

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The Next MVP?

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Lisa Leslie is expected to be named the league's most valuable player today. Previous MVPs :

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1997:

Cynthia Cooper, Houston

1998: Cynthia Cooper, Houston

1999: Yolanda Griffith, Sacramento

2000: Sheryl Swoopes, Houston

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