Anatomy of a Rivalry Evolved
From the time a precocious, skinny, 6-5 Australian first took the court against a savvy, skinny, 6-5 American, their rivalry has been destined. For Lauren Jackson to attain the superstardom prophesied for her as a teenager meant WNBA Championships, MVPs and Olympic gold medals. Standing between Jackson and those goals was the reigning post player in the world, Lisa Leslie.
"I think talent-wise, definitely," says Leslie, asked whether Jackson's arrival on the international stage threatened her as a player. "Her ability to play was very close to mine, always has been."
Only Leslie, at age 34, has hardly stepped aside gracefully to make room for the younger generation. After a disappointing 2005 season, Leslie has returned with renewed passion and posted what her coach, Joe Bryant, calls the best campaign of her illustrious career. It's Leslie, not Jackson, who is widely considered the front-runner for what would be her third MVP selection. And it's Leslie's Los Angeles Sparks who posted the Western Conference's top regular-season record at 25-9.
Now, Leslie's Sparks and Jackson's Storm square off in a playoff matchup that reveal how dramatically their rivalry has evolved - on and off the court. In basketball terms, the two players meet as equals, numbers one and one-a in some order in the WNBA. In personal terms, they have forged a relationship of respect, even if not friendship.
"It's like prizefighters, honestly."
The rivalry has always been the defining form of sports expression at an individual level. Two titans clash, proverbially bringing out the best in each other, but only one can ultimately prevail. As the premier rivalry in women's basketball - possibly ever - Jackson-Leslie has drawn comparisons to many of the most revered rivalries in sports history.
"It doesn't matter who's out on the floor, but it's not like I don't get up to play her," says Leslie. "Yeah, of course I do. She brings the best out of me and I think I probably bring the best out of her. It's a great challenge. I look back at when Magic and Larry Bird were playing against each other. It's just kind of like we can go 2-on-2, 3-on-3 or just be in here playing by ourselves and it would probably be just as competitive - we'd probably need some officials to keep it calm."
Storm Coach Anne Donovan looks back only to the last meeting between these two teams, a little less than three weeks ago at KeyArena. Leslie scored 31 points on 14-for-24 shooting, but Jackson answered with 27 points on 10-for-16 shooting and five blocks, forcing Leslie into a career-high-tying eight turnovers. Jackson had 12 points during a taut, back-and-forth final period while Leslie had seven in a 71-70 Los Angeles victory. It might have been the best individual matchup between Jackson and Leslie - so far.
"It's like prizefighters, honestly," offers Donovan. "Especially game three that was in KeyArena. First half, Lauren dominated the matchup. And then second half, Lisa got her groove on. It was just play after play at both ends. It kind of reminded me of the (2004 WNBA) Finals when it was (Nykesha) Sales was going against Betty (Lennox) - back and forth, two great players making big plays. For me, it's a great matchup to watch at the best position in the game. I give Lauren credit, because she's defending Lisa at one end and then she's trying to go against her at the offensive end. I think it's a little tougher in the scheme of things for Lauren. It's great to watch. I'm a big fan of that matchup."
Jackson has frequently downplayed the rivalry in recent years, but even she admits facing Leslie and the Sparks is special.
"It's L.A.," Jackson says. "They're wonderful. They're a great team. Lisa Leslie is one of the best players in the world. Of course you're going to get revved up to play against them. For me, that's the thing. She's been a lot older than me, someone I looked up to as a kid, expected to play against. To be able to go up and compete against her on this stage, it's huge."
"I think it's just always a great game," concludes Leslie. "It's very competitive. We both represent more than just ourselves; we represent our countries and the battle over gold medals and all of that has been never-ending. I think it's just a great battle. It's great for women's basketball to watch two players. She's phenomenal. Her ability to score inside and out, you can't give her enough credit and the same goes for me."
"Lauren wasn't really down low that much."
The 2002 Playoff series between the Storm and the Sparks could be considered a turning point in the rivalry. While the Storm had success against Los Angeles in the 2002 regular season, winning two out of three games, the Sparks reasserted their dominance with a 2-0 sweep en route to the WNBA Championship. Leslie posted 47 points on 21-for-33 shooting in the two games, while Jackson was limited to four points in 1-for-9 shooting in Game 2 in Los Angeles.
Four months later, Donovan came to Seattle. An elite center during her playing days, Donovan helped move Jackson's budding game into the paint. Jackson began playing inside-out, not outside-in, and almost overnight turned the potential to be the best player in the world into reality, winning WNBA MVP. The rivalry with Leslie was irreparably changed.
"Before Anne got here, Lauren wasn't really down low that much," says Storm guard Sue Bird. "She posted up, obviously, but she wasn't as aggressive as she is now on the blocks. So it's really my first year (2002) compared to all the other years - that was the big difference. In that second year, you could immediately tell Anne's influence. Get the ball to Lauren on the block and let her work down there. Lauren accepted it, and now you see them going against each other a lot down low."
"Lauren, for me, she has been willing to go into the post and do battle down there," adds Donovan. "She spends less time floating around the 3-point line. She's deadly out there, but she picks and chooses her times. I think the same for Lisa to some degree. Lisa spent a lot of years wanting to be a three, wanting to be a face-up player. This year I think she's an MVP candidate because she's really gone into the paint and gotten more work done there."
Since Donovan's arrival, Jackson and Leslie have battled against each other as equals (see box above for a breakdown of their career head-to-head performance). The Sparks hold a 7-5 lead in the series since 2003 and Leslie has the better field-goal percentage (52.1% to 41.4%), but their averages in scoring (20.7 for Leslie, 18.3 for Jackson), rebounding (7.5, 7.3) and blocked shots (2.1, 2.6) are similar, while Jackson has averaged more than two fewer turnovers.
"Lauren and I have spent so much time talking about this matchup through the years that ... Lauren's there," comments Donovan. "She doesn't need to draw on anything. She's there. She doesn't talk about it anymore, but it used to be, 'One of these days I'm going to win that matchup, that battle. One of these days I'm going to get the best of Lisa.' She doesn't talk about that anymore because that's happened. I think it speaks to her evolution in that matchup and personally, her own game."
"It's always been trumped up to be a lot more than it was."
As much as the Jackson-Leslie rivalry has been built on their performance against each other, so too has it been spurred by a personal relationship that has run icy at times. An incident in the 2000 Olympics when Jackson accidentally pulled out Leslie's hair weave provided an effective flashpoint for the media, while public statements on each side escalated the rivalry.
Now, Jackson can say, "There's always been a rivalry there and it's always been trumped up to be a lot more than it was. It was (a rivalry), definitely. But I haven't had a problem with her."
A key reason for that has been Jackson's maturation. Just 19 when she faced Leslie in 2000, Jackson has developed since then from a shy teenager into a self-assured young woman.
"I think that she's just grown," Leslie says. "I don't know any other way to say it. I don't really know her, but as far as the person and the player - even one time she hit me, she was like, 'Oh, I'm sorry.' Normally she'd say something crazy, but she apologized. I'm like, 'Oh, thank you.' I just thought thanks for even apologizing, even though I had a scratch on my face. That's the sign of maturity to me as opposed to things that have gone on on the court before. I'm just like it's not necessary to do that - just play. You're good, just play. She's at that point. I think that's good for her."
At one point, Jackson and Leslie barely spoke. Now they'll exchange pleasantries when they cross paths, whether after Storm-Sparks matchups or at All-Star Games.
"We've been on a lot of teams together, a lot of All-Star teams together, so there's going to be the 'Hi, how are you doing?'"
"'Great job,' she said even after the game here," adds Leslie. "'This is your year, you did a good job.' Sometimes I'm shocked when she says stuff and I'm like, 'Oh, thanks.' It has gotten better and we did talk during the All-Star Game. It's just casual."
"It doesn't come down to what us two do against each other."
One area where Jackson and Leslie are in lockstep is their agreement that this series will not turn on their matchup.
"Seriously, it doesn't come down to what us two do against each other," says Jackson. "Lisa's going to get 25, 30, I'm going to do what I do. It's how we combat the other players on their team. Obviously we're only going to have great head-to-head battles, but if I get two points I don't care who they're against."
"We almost kind of X each other out, hopefully," adds Leslie. "We cancel each other out and the rest of our teammates can really step up and make the difference."
The team whose star has had the higher Efficiency Rating is only 7-5 in the series since 2005, with the Storm's victories largely the product of team defense and balanced scoring and the Sparks getting contributions from their other All-Star, Chamique Holdsclaw, amongst others.
Even though Jackson and Leslie are as good defensively as they are on offense, Bryant doesn't expect to see them matching up directly on a regular basis.
"I think early in the game they're probably not going to play each other," says Bryant. "I think where you're really going to see that matchup is probably down the stretch where they'll have to guard each other. I think both coaches are trying to look to keep both of their star players out of early foul trouble. If they play each other , they're probably both going to have two fouls early and all the fans will be disappointed, so as coaches we'll wait until the stretch so they can play each other."
While Donovan is also wary of foul trouble, she does expect to use Jackson as her primary defender on Leslie throughout this series.
No matter how often they are matched up overall, there will likely come a time in this series where one of the game's top two players gets the ball defended by the other with the game on the line. It could provide another defining moment in what is already the WNBA's best rivalry.