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Comets aiming to make it 4 in row

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The Houston Comets are aiming to stay the one and only WNBA champions.

By winning their fourth title in the 4-year-old league's history, the Comets can become the first professional basketball team to win four consecutive championships since the Boston Celtics won eight straight from 1959-66.

But the defending champions are in an unfamiliar position heading into the WNBA playoffs, which begin Friday night. They're the No. 2 seed for the first time.

The Los Angeles Sparks, who swept the Comets in three games during the regular season, are the top seed and Western Conference champions.

"The difference is their maturity," Houston coach Van Chancellor said of the Sparks. "(Coach) Michael Cooper has got them playing together. They are willing to give up the ball for the good of the team so they can dethrone us. That is their whole mission."

But first, Los Angeles (28-4) will need to get past the Phoenix Mercury (20-12) in the best-of-three opening round of the Western Conference playoffs. On Saturday, Houston (27-5) will face the Sacramento Monarchs (21-11).

In the Eastern Conference, the Orlando Miracle (16-16) play host to the Cleveland Rockers (17-15) on Friday, while the New York Liberty (20-12) travel to Washington to play the Mystics (14-18) on Saturday.

For the first time in the league's four-year history, the Comets did not win a regular-season title. In the inaugural season, Houston won the East before moving to the Western Conference.

"There's a magical aura there," Cooper said of the Comets' 52-9 regular-season home record. "It's about getting past the mystique and realizing defensively what you need to do."

Cooper, the 1987 NBA defensive player of the year with the Los Angeles Lakers, has made defense a priority for the Sparks. They are holding opponents to a league-low 39.5 percent shooting from the field.

It could be the final championship run for Cynthia Cooper, the three-time WNBA championship MVP, who might retire after the season. Chancellor denied that Cooper's midseason announcement had been a distraction for the team.

"I don't know that this is her last season," Chancellor said. "If she wanted to make it her swan song, if she got 40 points in Sacramento, it wouldn't bother me a bit."

Houston's Sheryl Swoopes is the WNBA's top scorer (20.6) — a spot Cooper held the last three seasons — and a candidate for the league MVP award.

"She's tougher mentally," Chancellor said of Swoopes. "She's putting the ball on the floor, playing better defense and rebounding. And you always need a scorer."

Los Angeles is anchored by Lisa Leslie, who is averaging 17.8 points and 9.5 rebounds.

"Not to take anything away from Sheryl Swoopes, but I think Lisa Leslie is the MVP of the league," Michael Cooper said. "Lisa is a premier big (player), commands double teams, and distributes the ball to perimeter players. She's No. 1 to me in altering shots."

The Liberty defended their the Eastern Conference title, but coach Richie Adubato disagrees with the format that sends the top seed on the road for Game 1.

"Our belief is when you earn the right to homecourt advantage, you earn the right to play the first game at home," said Adubato, whose team is 12-4 at Madison Square Garden.

The Mystics won the series 2-1 against New York, and have won five of seven games. Washington's Chamique Holdsclaw, the '99 rookie of the year, hit the game-winning jumper on June 13.