WNBA MVP award is on the line tonight

The groan broke the mundane bustling.

Storm guard Sue Bird, always plugged in, was fiddling on the Internet through her cellphone on a team bus trip when she came across an article that made the Storm players want to pull their hair out.

Los Angeles center Lisa Leslie was quoted as saying there was no doubt she should be the WNBA's most valuable player.

"(Sue) said listen to this. Then she read the last paragraph," said Storm forward Lauren Jackson, who won the award last season.

The MVP award is a topic players normally shoo away with humility and bashfulness — whether sincere or not. But Leslie is different.

"There's no question who the MVP is. Hands down, that's me," Leslie said in a phone interview, making it clear she's not concerned with how others play. "You'll see the past two years the MVP was sitting at home and did not even make the playoffs (actually, Sheryl Swoopes of Houston did make the playoffs two years ago). But that doesn't matter. I'm not about individual awards. The numbers tell. I'm not going to pump myself up. I don't really get into that. I just do my job."

Jackson just laughed.

"If it's based on consistency, then I have a good chance," Jackson said. "She's had (six) great (post-Olympics) games. She hasn't had a great season. We're head to head. I've never got the best of her, and I haven't played her aggressively like I can."

Tonight's season finale between the Sparks and Storm at KeyArena, which means nothing as far as standings or playoffs, could mean everything for the MVP race between Leslie, a 6-foot-5 center, and Jackson, a 6-5 forward.

Since winning her third Olympic gold medal, Leslie averaged 25.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.5 blocks as Los Angeles went 5-2 through last night's loss against Minnesota in the Sparks' home finale.

Jackson's team obviously missed her while she spent time in Australia caring for her ailing grandmother; the Storm lost three games she missed.

But the team has since gone 3-2 with Jackson, who is averaging 19.2 points, six rebounds and 2.2 blocks in the five games.

Jackson's numbers are consistent with her season, which had media members pegging her as the MVP when the Storm closed the first half at 17-8, trailing L.A. for the Western Conference lead.

Jackson leads the league in scoring (20.4) and is 11th in rebounds (6.6), third in blocked shots (2.1) and second in three-point percentage (.451). Jackson has three 30-point games.

Before last night's games, Leslie was fifth in scoring (17.8) and leading the WNBA in rebounds (11.0) and blocked shots (3.0).

Before the Olympics, Leslie was simply the best player on the best team. She has one 30-point game, and that was Tuesday's 31-point outing against Phoenix. Pair that with her triple-double against Detroit last week, and you've got a valid debate.

"I would love for Lauren to win it again," said Phoenix coach Carrie Graf, who coached Jackson in Australia's WNBL. "It would be great, but this year it belongs to Lisa Leslie. We just played down there, and her mentality is, 'There is no way in hell we're not going to win the championship.' She's dominating games, scoring and is the best basketball player in the world right now. Her maturity and focus on the game is phenomenal."

Storm coach Anne Donovan knows how television influences voters.

Of the three front-runners for the award, Leslie has been on national television six times (three on ABC), Houston's Tina Thompson six (twice on ABC) and Jackson three (once on ABC).

"I think the media has to get out and see the games live," Donovan said. "The number of times Lauren takes a hit, the energy she brings, you can't figure that out on TV. Everyone can make a videotape of highlights, but it won't capture what they bring to the game."

Leslie, Donovan and others would like a guideline for how the media should vote. Especially since Leslie was playing MVP-worthy ball last season until she went down with a knee injury during the All-Star Game. She fought back to get her team into the playoffs, but Jackson won the award — and the $25,000 — without making the postseason.

"The MVP is someone who knows how to win," Leslie said. "They make the players around them better, and they lead their team to the championship. It's also someone who is not rude, someone who carries themselves well. They should definitely be in the top 10 in more than one category, maybe three or five. And I think the people voting should attend a certain amount of games. Some of the people voting may not be true followers of the league."

At last count, 31 percent of 16,344 voters on the league's Web site had Leslie as the MVP. Thompson, the WNBA's second-leading scorer (20.2), followed with 27 percent of the vote. Jackson was third at 19 percent.

Neither Leslie nor Jackson wants to make tonight's matchup about the award. The Storm (20-13) is trying to even the four-game series and seek a little redemption from a fight that resulted in three player fines and a suspension.

Los Angeles wants to continue to impose its will on teams, knowing it beat Seattle twice while suffering the second-worst loss in the franchise's eight-year history, 93-67 in the season opener at KeyArena.

So, the award is secondary.

Yeah, right.

"My time is going to come. I'm not worried," said Jackson, who is nine years younger than Leslie, 32. "I'd never bag her because I used to be so awestruck with her and wanted to be like her when I was 16. But I'm glad I'm nothing like her on or off the court. Anne (Donovan) is my role model, who I look up to."

Leslie just has all the cool trinkets.

It just makes Storm fans want to groan.

Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or jevans@seattletimes.com

Jayda Evans' WNBA ballot


The players will decide tonight.

Rookie of the year

Diana Taurasi, Phoenix.

Defensive player of the year Lisa Leslie, Los Angeles.

Most improved player

Wendy Palmer, Connecticut.

Coach of the year

Minnesota's Suzie McConnell Serio.

Sportsmanship award

Teresa Edwards, Minnesota.

All-WNBA first team

G Diana Taurasi, Phoenix; G Sue Bird, Seattle; C Lisa Leslie, Los Angeles; F Lauren Jackson, Seattle; F Tina Thompson, Houston.

All-WNBA second team

G Nikki Teasley, Los Angeles; G Lindsay Whalen, Connecticut; C Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Connecticut; F Tamika Catchings, Indiana; F Swin Cash, Detroit.