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Liberty not afraid of champions

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NEW YORK — The Houston Comets and New York Liberty are making a tradition of meeting in the WNBA finals.

The teams, who open their best-of-three series Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, are playing for the championship for the second straight year and the third time in four seasons.

But this time, the Liberty are out to finally topple the three-time champions.

"We're not afraid of Houston," Liberty guard Becky Hammon said. "We have a lot of respect for them, but we're definitely not afraid of them. We're playing this series to win it."

The teams split their two regular-season meetings, with each winning at home. The Liberty go into Game 1 looking to extend their 13-game home winning streak.

"It'll be very difficult to beat New York," Houston coach Van Chancellor said. "But I think the problem is that New York has all the incentive, all the motivation. We've stood in their way for two times now. They've got to have the extra motivation."

Houston beat New York in the WNBA's first championship game in 1997. The Liberty forced a deciding Game 3 in last year's finals with a last-second, half-court shot by Teresa Weatherspoon before losing the series the next night.

A victory in Game 1 might be imperative if the Liberty plan to bring home a championship. Game 2 and Game 3, if necessary, would be in Houston's Compaq Center — where the Comets have lost just twice this season.

"We have to take Thursday's game in order to give ourselves a chance," Hammon said. "And then, look at last year, you go in and win on a luck shot. Hey, we'll take that 'W' any way we can get it. Anything can happen in basketball."

Both teams demonstrated the game's unpredictability this season.

When the Liberty started 8-9, there were few who figured they would even make the playoffs. But New York went 12-3 the rest of the way to win the Eastern Conference, and won playoff series against Washington and Cleveland to set up its matchup with Houston.

"No one thought we would be there, and no one believed in us but our fans and ourselves," Weatherspoon said.

The Comets breezed through the regular season, but three of their five losses were to Los Angeles. After beating Sacramento in the first round, Houston's chances of defeating Los Angeles in the Western Conference finals looked slim.

But the Comets swept the Sparks, who had the league's best record, and surprised even themselves.

"We're amazed we are here," Chancellor said. "How many thought it was going to be both coasts, L.A. and New York, in the finals? This team has the most pride of any team I've been involved with."

The Comets are led by their Big Three: forwards Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson and guard Cynthia Cooper.

Swoopes, this season's MVP, led the league with 20.7 points per game. Cooper, a two-time league MVP who said she will retire after the playoffs, is averaging a team-leading 22.8 points in the playoffs. Add in Thompson's 16.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, and the Liberty have their hands full.

"You have two people who have MVPs of this league under their belt," Adubato said. "MVP means that they don't let their team lose, that they understand all the pressures involved."

A major contributor to the Liberty's success this season has been forward Tari Phillips, acquired from Portland on May 28 — the day before the season started. She leads New York in scoring and rebounding, and gives the Liberty a go-to player.

"The addition of Phillips and the emergence of Becky Hammon has made this an entirely different basketball team from either one of the other two teams that we've played," Chancellor said. "They have more firepower and the ability to score now than they've ever had."

The Comets remain focused on winning a fourth title, and could become the first professional sports team to win four straight since the NHL's New York Islanders won in 1980-83.

"Of course, we've been here before, but it's an exciting thing each time you come here, and we're not going to let anything deter us from winning another championship," Houston forward Tammy Jackson said. "When they start giving out plastic rings, we'll start saying, 'Hey, maybe that's not the route we'll go anymore."'

The finals will be broadcast to 154 countries in 22 languages. The opening game of the series will be shown on Lifetime, and NBC will broadcast Games 2 and 3.