If the Eastern Conference parity can be represented by the term "Share and share alike," then the Western Conference mottos are definitely "Don't mess with Texas" and "Hooray for Hollywood." Again, Lisa Leslie and the Sparks are proving to be the team to beat and are on course for another 28-4 finish. Hot on their trail are Sheryl Swoopes and the Houston Comets, who seem to be in a position to battle for league supremacy in 2002. There are nice surprises are Utah and Portland who look to be very much in the playoff hunt, and the surging Storm just pulled off an impressive upset of the defending champs on Thursday.

Check out Ann Meyers' recap of the first half of play in the wild, wild West.


FEEL THE HEAT IN HOUSTON
Houston is hot going into the All-Star break, having won 10 in a row before a surprise loss to Phoenix on Thursday night.

Despite recent displays of vulnerability, Ann Meyers says that Houston and Los Angeles are still the teams to beat.
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Houston started the season with its core group of talent, then traded Amanda Lassiter to Seattle for a veteran in Sonja Henning. Sheryl Swoopes also returned after a season on the injured list and is still getting back into game shape.

Some of the Comets have had to figure out what their role is on the team. Based on what Houston wants from her, Janeth Arcain's role has changed again. She's become one of the most valuable players in this league because of the adjustments she makes year in and year out. Arcain is a player who was on the All-Star team last year and although she is not on the All-Star team this year, she is still is one of the best players in the world.

Moving into the All-Star break, however, Van Chancellor finally has his rotation going and has been working in the team's four of five new players. Regardless, it's still going to be the Tina Thompson-Sheryl Swoopes show. The Comets are four-time WNBA champs and were right in the running last year even without Swoopes. You can never count them out.


DEFENDING THE TITLE IN TINSELTOWN
Los Angeles started out with its core group in tact, then added new point guard Nikki Teasley in a draft-day trade. Mwadi Mabika and Tamecka Dixon are All-Stars again. Mabika, a native of Congo, has improved a great deal this season after staying in the states to play alongside Magic Johnson and against men during the offseason.

Lisa Leslie has been playing well, especially against the double- and triple-teams. They have a lot of weapons and are working a new, young point guard into their system. They lost to Houston during the first half of the season once and beat them once, so the second half will be interesting for the Sparks.



MAKING THEIR MOVES
The Utah Starzz are still up and down. They won big the other night, but then looked terrible against Los Angeles. Although they did pretty well in the first half, you would think the Starzz "coulda, woulda, shoulda" won a bit more because of their talented starting five. Marie Ferdinand is unbelievable and both she and Adrienne Goodsen are deserving of their All-Star selections.

In Seattle you basically have to look at Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson. They pulled off a surprising win against Los Angeles -- which was without Dixon -- on Thursday, but they still need to prove a lot. Jackson is still young and learning that the WNBA game is different than in Australia. There are a lot of expectations being placed on her, but Jackson needs help down low. There are some terrific players on the Storm, but are they going to be one of the four teams to finish in playoff contention?

SURPRISE, SURPRISE
To be honest, Minnesota's struggles are surprising. Everybody keeps talking about Leslie getting double- and triple-teamed, but the same thing is happening to Katie Smith. She's a player who led the league in scoring last season, but this year her numbers are down and she's really getting banged around. A terrific addition for Minnesota, though, was rookie Tamika Williams. She probably hasn't received the credit she deserves because she's playing alongside Smith and Svetlana Abrosimova. With all of their talent, it's a surprise that Minnesota hasn't won more games.



Portland is another team that has suprised me. Ever since Jackie Stiles was placed on the injured list, the Fire have had to regroup and now have won seven in a row. Their front line needs to be consistent, however. Is Sylvia Crawley going to come to play every night? At 6-5 she should be a factor. Tamicha Jackson and Ukari Figgs are understanding how to play together in the backcourt. Jackson is a feisty player and she can explode for quite a few points. Conversely, Figgs has a settling effect on a team.

Another surprise is Phoenix. Phoenix was in the hunt for a playoffs spot until Cynthia Cooper resigned. Now the Mercury have started to drop and lost six in a row before beating Houston on an off night shooting for the Comets. Jennifer Gillom has elevated her game and had a great one recently, but the Mercury have lost some of their firepower with the retirement of Michele Timms and the absence of Maria Stepanova. Tracy Reid has been in and out of the lineup with injuries as well, and that's difficult to deal with.

THE FINAL CALL
All told, the Sparks and the Comets are the two teams that you have to really look at in the West. It's still these two in the West, whereas In the East it isn't quite as definite.