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It’s Sparks’ Season of Hope

Times Staff Writer

The Sparks don’t usually begin the WNBA playoffs as an underdog but then, they don’t usually qualify at the last minute, either.

So when they open their best-of-three series against Western Conference champion Sacramento tonight at Staples Center, they’ll be experiencing something new.

“We feel like true underdogs,” center Lisa Leslie said. “And we’ve already played as terrible as we can play. So we hope we can find a way to play better, come together and play hard. Is this the best team ever? No, although it has improved as of late. And we feel good about that.

“But we don’t have anything to lose but the game. Nobody expects us to win anyway. So that feels good. The pressure’s off us. We’ve just got to go out and play.”

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What else stands out is the role reversal the teams have undergone in a year’s time.

Last year, the Sparks were top-seeded in the West and the Monarchs were fourth. Even so, Sacramento prevailed in their first-round series, two games to one.

This time, the 25-9 Monarchs are atop the West. The 17-17 and fourth-seeded Sparks didn’t qualify for the playoffs until the final game of the regular season on Saturday.

Sacramento dominated during the regular-season series, winning three of four games. This will be the first time the Monarchs will have the home-court advantage. In four previous series against the Sparks, Sacramento was the lower-seeded team. The Monarchs lost three of the series.

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“They’re playing with a lot of confidence now,” Tamecka Dixon said of the Monarchs. “They’ve been under their coach [John Whisenant] for some years, and he’s confident in their abilities. That’s the biggest thing. Their system is the same; they’ve played the same for about three years. They went to the conference finals last year, and they believe they can get there again.”

But the Sparks are confident as well. Or at least as confident as they’ve been this season. Since Joe Bryant replaced Henry Bibby as coach, they have won four of their last six games.

“The last two weeks there have been a lot of the same old feelings we had when we won our championships,” Dixon said. “I think the biggest thing Coach Bryant has done is allowed us to go out and have fun. That’s the biggest thing that was missing all year. It was kind of like a military camp. But the fun has been restored and, as a result, he’s getting positive results.”

The Monarchs, who set a franchise record for regular-season victories, have some injury issues. Standout forward DeMya Walker, who averaged 14 points and made the West All-Star team for the first time, is out of the first round with a sprained right knee.

Guard Kara Lawson, who went on the league injured list on Aug. 26 after hurting her left shoulder, is day to day.

Still, Sacramento has a deep bench that includes Rebekkah Brunson, who will start in place of Walker; Kristin Haynie, Hamchetou Maiga and Olympia Scott-Richardson to support starters Yolanda Griffith, Chelsea Newton, Ticha Penicherio and Nicole Powell.

The Monarchs also are a hot team, having ended the regular season with a seven-game winning streak.

Which makes getting Game 1 important to the Sparks.

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“If we can handle our business at home, that puts a little pressure on them to win two at their place -- where they are very tough,” Bryant said.


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