How the West Was Fun
By Rob Peterson

Architecture springs to mind when you look at the two teams -- the Houston Comets and the Los Angeles Sparks -- atop the Western Conference standings. You see two cornerstones of the WNBA. You see two pillars of success, built on strong foundations of sustained excellence.

Check out some highlights of Western Conference action from the first half of the 2001 season:
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You have the four-time WNBA champion Comets and you have the team with the second-best regular-season winning percentage in the last two years in the Sparks.

The teams' stability comes from the ability to keep their foundations intact. Comets coach Van Chancellor has four rings and players who run rings around the opposition. Tina Thompson, an MVP candidate, and Janeth Arcain have strapped the Comets on their backs and carried them through the first half.


The Sparks have had Lisa Leslie in the middle for five years, and she's having one of her best seasons as a pro. Los Angeles also has the same head coach, Michael Cooper, for the last two seasons, who has won 86 percent of his games in the regular season.

Yet, peek inside these facades and you'll find even the familiar has a new twist. Who would have expected the Comets, who lost 2000 league MVP Sheryl Swoopes to a knee injury and four-time WNBA Championship MVP Cynthia Cooper to retirement, to reel off nine straight wins, lose the use of their arena because a fierce tropical storm and still be within one game (as of July 9) of the Sparks? And who would have expected the Sparks to reel off a league-record nine consecutive wins to start the season, LOSE three in a row, then win five straight as of July 9?

With the two conference stalwarts this wild and unpredictable, imagine what the rest of the West resembles.

Uniforms don't come with holsters, but they should as long as gunslingers like Minnesota's Katie Smith, the league's leading scorer, can go off for 40 or more points on two separate occasions.


Portland's precocious rookie, Jackie Stiles, continues to fire away and score as often. She's fifth in the league at 16.7 points per game as of July 9. Sacramento's Yolanda Griffith seems to get a double-double every night, and she grabbed 20 rebounds in one game. Throw in an occasional triple-double by a 7-foot-2 center, Utah's Margo Dydek, and you have some interesting stuff happening in the West.

Here are our team and individual Western Conference highlights from the first half of the season.

1. Sparks 100, Lynx 96 in OT as Minnesota's Katie Smith's scores a WNBA-record 46 points

A few hours before the Sparks and Lynx tipped off, Katie Smith and Lisa Leslie learned that they had not been selected to start in the 2001 WNBA All Star Game. Smith and Leslie did not complain, they just let their play do the talking on July 8.

Leslie had a career-high 32 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. And while the Sparks were thanking their lucky stars (but not so lucky in the All-Star voting) after nearly blowing a 17-point lead, they couldn't help but be impressed as Smith tallied a WNBA-record 46 points. Sparks coach Michael Cooper, who witnessed a few outbursts like that in his NBA days, made an apt comparison.

"Katie was unbelievable," Cooper told the Orange County Register. "I don't think anyone could have stopped her. Tonight, her exhibition reminded me of some of those games that Larry Bird used to play. He would get into a zone and couldn't be stopped. It was pleasurable to watch.

"I'm glad we won. Even if we hadn't, we still would have been treated to a good game of basketball."

2. L.A.'s nine straight wins to open the season
The Sparks picked up this season where they left off the last regular season, when they won 12 in a row before losing the season finale.

This year, the Sparks invaded Houston for the season opener. They defeated the defending champs and were gone, reeling off a WNBA-record nine consecutive victories to open the year.

One by one they fell. Some by a basket (Los Angeles defeated Minnesota, 62-60) and some by many baskets (the Sparks clobbered Portland, 90-75). But fall they did until arch-nemesis Houston stopped the streak on June 21.

All of which brings us to...

3. Houston's nine-game winning streak
At the start of the season, everyone was talking about what Houston had lost: a league MVP to injury, a four-time championship MVP to retirement, and when the horn sounded after the first 40 minutes of the season, the Comets had lost their first game.

But the Comets, the only champion the league has ever known, found some resolve. They reeled off nine straight wins, including the win over the Sparks. What made the win over Los Angeles and the streak all the more remarkable was the adversity the Comets endured during the streak.

Flooding from Tropical Storm Allison destroyed the court at the Compaq Center, forcing the Comets to reschedule four games of a five-game homestand. Houston's victory snapping the Sparks nine-game winning streak on June 21 came 11 days after their last game. The Comets won three more before losing to the Monarchs in Sacramento.

4. Margo Dydek's triple-double

While triple-doubles are rare, Dydek's triple-double is rarer still. The traditional triple-double includes double figures in points, rebounds and assists. Not Dydek's. She averages 1.7 assists per game. She's also 7-foot-2 and the WNBA career-leader in rejections. Dydek had 11 points, 12 rebounds and an astounding 10 blocked shots, which broke the league record of nine, previously held by -- yep -- Dydek.

5. Yolanda Griffth's 20-rebound game

Sacramento's Yolanda Griffith picks rebounds as easily as one picks cans off a grocery store shelf.

Against the Mystics on June 5, Griffth grabbed an astounding 20 rebounds, one shy of the league record held by Lisa Leslie. Unfortunately for the Monarchs, the Mystics escaped with a 76-72 win. Griffith has been amazing on the boards this season, and throughout her career in the WNBA. She has four 19-rebound games in her career and two 18-rebound games this season. In fact, she has the top five rebounding performances in the Western Conference this season.

Single-Game High Scorers
Katie Smith, Minnesota, 40 points vs. Shock, June 17
Smith, Minnesota, 31 points vs. Fire, May 31
Yolanda Griffith, Sacramento, 30 points vs. Sting, June 7
Tina Thompson, Houston, 29 points vs. Sparks, June 21
Thompson, Houston, 29 points vs. Fire, July 2

Single-Game High Rebounders
Griffith, 20 rebounds vs. Mystics, June 5
Griffith, 18 rebounds vs. Sting, June 7
Griffith, 18 rebounds vs. Mercury, June 14
Griffith, 17 rebounds vs. Fire, June 16
Griffith, 16 rebounds vs. Sting, June 24


Eastern Conference half-season highlights