2002: Sparks Fly as L.A. Claims Back-to-Back WNBA Titles
NEW YORK, September 3, 2002
-- The City of Los Angeles has a lot to offer: a warm climate, an ocean at its doorstep, and Hollywood. Now, apparently, it also holds a monopoly on winning professional basketball titles.
For the second consecutive year, the Los Angeles Sparks made short work of their WNBA Finals opponent, sweeping the New York Liberty, which has now been a bridesmaid in the Finals four times. For those keeping count, that gives L.A. a combined five NBA and WNBA titles in three years.
The Sparks clinched back-to-back titles on Saturday with a 69-66 Game 2 victory in front of a raucous crowd of nearly 14,000 fans at STAPLES Center. But the triumph was assured only after rookie point guard Nikki Teasley sunk a three-pointer with 2.1 seconds remaining.
"I've never hit a game-winning shot," Teasley said. "I've won an AAU tournament when I was 10 years old, but nothing ever big, nothing in college."
The Sparks winning a title was not the only familiar sight. Lisa Leslie was selected the Most Valuable Player of the Finals for the second straight year, averaging 16 points, eight rebounds and two blocks. Another familiar sight was the resiliency of the Liberty, which had come back from a 66-57 deficit with 2:46 remaining to tie the game at 66-66 on a Tari Phillips jumper with 18.2 seconds to play.
"We can't take anything from (the Liberty) because they made some tremendous runs," said DeLisha Milton.
Although the Sparks swept through the playoffs and have now won nine straight postseason games dating back to last year's Western Conference Finals, the 2002 WNBA Finals did not lack for compelling story lines.
The series marked the first time that teams representing the two largest media markets in the country had met for a championship since the 1981 World Series when the Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the New York Yankees in six games.
"I think this is probably what Val (Ackerman) was thinking of when she thought about the WNBA," Leslie said prior to the start of the series. "In our first season, L.A. vs. New York, that was our first game, and I think we finally got to that point six years later."
More than just a battle of big markets, however, this year's Finals offered a contrast in styles. During the regular season, the Sparks' high-powered offense had led the league in scoring (76.6 ppg), while the blue-collar Liberty had allowed only 63.0 ppg, second lowest in the league behind Houston.
The Sparks were dealt a blow before the start of Game 1 when All-Star guard Tamecka Dixon slipped stepping down from the bus prior to the team's morning shoot around. Dixon suffered a sore lower back and strained patella tendon in her right knee and was not able to play in Game 1. Latasha Byears replaced Dixon in the starting lineup.
"Our President, Johnny Buss, and General Manager, Penny Toler, designed this team to have starters backing up starters," said Coach Michael Cooper, who now owns a combined seven WNBA and NBA titles -- all in Los Angeles. Cooper was a core member of the Lakers juggernaut of the '80s that won five titles.
With Dixon watching from the bench, Mwadi Mabika had 20 points, Milton 17 and Leslie 15, and the Sparks went on to win their fifth 2002 postseason games in as many tries, 71-63.
The Liberty was in familiar territory, having lost the first game of every series in the playoffs before coming back to defeat Indiana and Washington. Unlike the first two series, however, the Liberty would have to play Game 2 on the road, in Los Angeles.
The Sparks did not disappoint their faithful, and now can concentrate on going for a three-peat. There is at least one person who wouldn't bet against another title for L.A.
"They have everything you need," said Liberty coach Richie Adubato of the Sparks. "You have Leslie, who is probably the best player in the league, and a great surrounding cast. Yeah, they are capable of doing it."
Finals Stats and Stuff
Lisa Leslie won her second consecutive WNBA Finals MVP award in a vote by a panel of media and fans on WNBA.com (the fans' poll counts as one vote). Leslie averaged 16 points and eight rebounds in the two triumphs over the Liberty.
In sweeping through the playoffs, the Sparks became the third team in WNBA history to go undefeated in the postseason. The Houston Comets did it twice: in 1997 (2-0 in the inaugural WNBA postseason) and again in 2000 (6-0).
All six WNBA champions have clinched the title on their home floor -- the Comets at Houston's Compaq Center (1997-2000) and the Sparks at STAPLES CENTER (2001-02).
Sparks rookie guard Nikki Teasley handed out 11 assists in Game 2, tying the WNBA Finals record she set in Game 1. The previous record of 10 was held by the Liberty's Teresa Weatherspoon, against Houston on September 2, 1999.
The Liberty has reached the WNBA Finals four times in the six-year history of the league, but has yet to take home a title. Only Houston has made as many appearances in the WNBA Finals as New York. Liberty originals Vickie Johnson, Teresa Weatherspoon and Sue Wicks have been with the team for all four of their trips to the Finals. New York has gone to the Finals three times in four seasons under Coach Richie Adubato.
A pair of Liberty players -- Teresa Weatherspoon and Crystal Robinson -- moved into first place on the all-time WNBA Finals list in two different categories. Weatherspoon, with 43 career assists in the Finals, took over the all-time lead from Cynthia Cooper (42); and Robinson is now the Finals career leader in three-point field goal attempts with 41, also passing Cooper (39).
** From WNBA News, September 3, 2002