Sparks going through an early season injury bug
Sparks General Manager Penny Toler wants to know, "Where are the real Sparks at?" That's the question she's been wondering ever since last week's 0-3 road swing that puts them at a 1-3 record. It's the same question she posed in a team meeting this week as the Sparks prepared for tonight's game against the Phoenix Mercury.
I'll be highlighting in detail in Sunday's Times about the Sparks' recent troubles. And while it appears the Sparks have maintained a realistic and mature attitude about their losing record, it's hard to answer Toler's question completely.
As forward Tina Thompson said about this week's practices, "We’re down to eight or nine people. So very few breaks."
Sparks guard Betty Lennox left in the second half of last week's loss to Indiana because of a hurt right knee. She said she had an MRI on Monday and that the knee is "curable." Team trainers said Wednesday that Lennox had inflammation in her knee and that she's deemed possible for tonight.
Sparks forward DeLisha Milton-Jones asked Coach Michael Cooper to sit out the Fever game because the 10-year veteran felt fatigue catching up to her without much time to rest between the Beijing Olympics and playing overseas for Ros Casares Valencia of Spain. She declined to confirm that she has a sore right Achilles, which team trainers say has also sidelined her. They also listed her as possible for tonight.
"D as well as Betty are day-to-day, depending on how they’re feeling," Cooper said.
Then there's center Lisa Leslie, who has been playing with a sore right thumb ever since the beginning of training camp.
"It’s still attached to my other finger," Leslie said.
But does it feel okay?
"No," she said.
Lennox is Sparks 'Kobe Bryant.'
Lennox couldn't recall a specific incident that led to her knee injury, or how long the pain has built up. But when she felt hurt, she didn't hesitate to tell Cooper.
"I asked Coop to take me out," Lennox said. "I didn’t want to hurt my team when I can’t go 100%. At that point, I couldn’t even go 50%. I’m not too afraid to ask if I can come out. My knee wasn’t doing so well. We have great players for them to do the same thing."
Toler calls Lennox the team's Bryant, even if it is unheard of for him to admit vulnerabilities during the season or after a game. As Toler mentioned, both Bryant and Lennox have "the killer instinct."
"When shots aren't falling, she can go get hers," Toler said. "She can create her shots and go get it. That’ll help kick things into gear when we’re not playing well and we have something to rely on until we can come back. She shoots the jumper, she runs the floor, she does a lot of things."
After signing with the Sparks this past off-season, the 2000 WNBA Rookie of the Year is one of three players, including Thompson and Leslie, to average double digits so far. Lennox averages 12.3 points a game, but she hasn't played consistently.
After Lennox scored 17 points in the season opener against Detroit, she scored six against the Shock two days later. After leading the Sparks with 25 points against Minnesota, she scored only three points against Indiana and left in the second half.
Similar to how Bryant had been heavily criticized earlier in his career, does Lennox try to do too much?
"As far as Betty doing too much or not doing too much, we don’t have enough players doing enough," Toler said. "That’s collectively. I don’t look at what she’s doing or if one person was doing something. Collectively, we’re not doing enough."
Lennox was limited in Tuesday's and Wednesday's practices, but she said she worked on extra shooting to keep herself fresh. As far as playing tonight? "I plan on it," Lennox said. "That’s up to Coop, whether he plays me or not."
"In a run-and-gun type of game, we sure could use that gun on our side," Toler said of Phoenix, which leads the league with 94.2 points a game. "It’s going to be a shootout at the corral; let’s at least bring the uzi. I’m hoping she’s okay and able to go. Betty is tough."
Milton-Jones worrisome about asking for rest
As soon as training camp began, Milton-Jones felt she needed some rest. But then she quickly imagined the ramifications.
"You have the rookies in here, they’re watching the veterans," Milton-Jones said. "If they see me come in and I’m sitting here with my little umbrella sitting in the shade with a Corona, they’re going to be like, 'That’s how they do it in L.A.? If she can relax, I can relax.' I don’t ever want that to be perceived on my behalf by anyone."
Instead, she came to training camp like everyone else on the roster. She learned the offense. She became familiar with teammates. She stayed in game shape. But through four games, Milton-Jones has averaged only 6.7 points and shot 34.8%, she maintains, because "my legs felt like they were shot. I couldn’t get any lift. All my shots were flat."
She told Cooper after the Sparks' loss to Minnesota about her fatigue and expressed wanting to sit out against Indiana. Cooper understood.
"I think we’ll benefit from that than having her try to practice in pain and then play catch up," Cooper said.
"DeLisha never says she’s hurt, never has said she’s hurt, so here I have a player that’s saying my body doesn’t feel right," Toler said. "I clearly don’t want to lose her for the year."
Milton-Jones doesn't expect to have to miss any more games, including tonight. She compared the rest to rebooting a computer. She stayed out of contact drills, and often limited herself to shooting and cardiovascular workouts.
"Now things are finally catching up with me," she said. "So I just need to find moments where I can get some rest. Now is a perfect time."
Leslie says she can't let thumb affect her play
At the Sparks' media day in May, Leslie joked that she could use her jammed thumb she suffered during the early days of training camp as an excuse when she's not shooting well.
"Coop always says, 'Oh your thumb’s not bothering you now' when I hit my shots, but when I miss, I say, 'Shoot, it’s my thumb,'" Leslie said, laughing. "So every shot I miss is because of the thumb."
Leslie was in no joking mood about her thumb this week. It took a few prompts before she would explain specifically how her swollen thumb has affected her play. She clearly didn't want to use that as an excuse for a season that started off slowly.
Although the double teams opened up the floor, Detroit limited Leslie to six points on 3-of-11 shooting in the season opener. She scored eight points two days later against the Shock and went 4-of-11 from the field.
"It’s tough because it’s on my shooting hand," Leslie said. "I need my thumb to catch the ball. Some of the fingers you can tie together. You can get one to support the other. It’s just out there."
She decided not to have her thumb taped for the Indiana game. Leslie led the Sparks with 21 points and shot 7-of-10.
"I shot better without it," Leslie said. "At this point, every now and then I’ll get hit and then I’m like, 'Take me out.' I wait until it calms down and then I come back in."
"At this point, I don’t think I can afford to wrap it," she said. "Let’s just put it that way. I need to shoot better and be a little bit more effective for my teammates."
Even with Leslie's shooting struggles, Toler noticed the intangibles the 12-year veteran has brought. After all, scoring isn't the only reason every venue's giving her a tribute sendoff for her last season.
"She’s still showing up, giving what she can give," Toler said. "Lisa’s always led and I expect her to lead now. Once again, you don’t always have to lead by points. You can lead by stepping up defensively. More than anything, you can lead by demeanor and attitude. That’s where half the game is already won. Demeanor and attitude. The thing Lisa has done for  years has always led. I told her today, 'I don’t expect anything different.'"
Photo: Los Angeles Sparks guard Betty Lennox makes a free throw against the Detroit Shock. Credit: Reed Saxon/AP Photo.