Surprising, revived Mystics open playoffs today

Fast finish with Beard leading gets team in

WNBA Playoffs

September 25, 2004|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

The Washington Mystics' march into WNBA's playoffs doesn't seem to be the miraculous run that it appears at first glance.

Even when matters were most grim, often marked as the team's 69-42 loss to Indiana on Sept. 4, being in last place meant that making up 1 1/2 games would put the Mystics into the postseason.

But that probably requires a revisionist viewpoint.

When a team idles the way the Mystics idled for much of this season before losing franchise player Chamique Holdsclaw to an undisclosed medical problem, only to then play its best basketball without her, achieving the playoffs looks downright mystical.

Finding more balance, more physicality and every bit of rookie Alana Beard expected when drafting her with the league's second pick, Washington (17-17) finished the season with five wins in its last six games. Thus, the Mystics open their first-round series with Connecticut at noon today at MCI Center.

"We've brought some life to the franchise with the winning streak to get into the playoffs," said new coach Michael Adams. "We were down for a while. When you're 12-16, it looks bleak, but we managed to keep plugging away."

The Mystics were expected to contend for this result before the season started. After finishing last in the Eastern Conference in 2003, the team picked up All-Star center Chasity Melvin from defunct Cleveland to provide power up front it lacked after Vicky Bullett retired after the 2002 season.

Washington also traded Asjha Jones to acquire former Phoenix point guard Tamicha Jackson in hope of dependable scoring at that spot. Between Jackson, Melvin, and Beard - a three-time All-American at Duke - the point was to give a stronger supporting cast to Holdsclaw, the perennial WNBA All-Star.

And it seemed to work.

After a July 15 victory over Charlotte, the Mystics already had exceeded the win total of 2003, when the team finished 9-25. But that seemed that that would be the high-mark for this team. A West Coast trip started a stretch of five losses out of five games, with Holdsclaw sidelined since appearing in a July 28 loss to Detroit.

Washington not only had to figure out how to replace someone averaging 19 points and nine rebounds a game, but also how to deal with the questions of why their best player wasn't performing.

Muriel Page, the only player on the roster to play for the club since joining the WNBA in 1998, said the team "knew that a lot of people had to refocus."

In fact, Washington wasn't the only team to lose a centerpiece player down the stretch. Injuries took Olympians Katie Smith of Minnesota and Swin Cash of Detroit, and those teams also made the playoffs.

At MCI Center, a big factor is that the lack of Holdsclaw forced the other players to think of themselves as go-to performers.

"More people are taking responsibility, whereas in the past, we'd look to a couple of people," Page said. "We know all 11 players on this team can score."

That said, if there's a player gawk-worthy enough to fill Holdsclaw's shoes, it's Beard. After a brief struggle, she's turned out to be the versatile player on both ends of the floor, averaging 19.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.2 blocks.

(WNBA playoff schedule, 7c)

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