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Minus a Star, Mystics Learn To Add More Of Themselves

By Sally Jenkins
Thursday, September 16, 2004; Page D01

The Washington Mystics used to be Chamique Holdsclaw's team, but now they're just a team. That's a good thing, not a bad one. Go ahead and say it: They're playing better without her.

How is it that in the final week of the season, lacking their centerpiece player, the Mystics have a legitimate hope of making the WNBA playoffs? The answer is not really about Holdsclaw, it only seems that way. The answer is about the rest of the Mystics.

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The Mystics win their fourth straight, 84-73, over San Antonio.
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If acquiring a player can make a franchise, sometimes losing a player can make a team, and while that's counterintuitive, it's also the absolute truth. The Mystics are plainly doing things without Holdsclaw that they never did with her. They've become a team, and a very good one, the one they were supposed to be all along, out of sheer survival instinct. The alternative was utter humiliation and a swift fall down a manhole.

The Mystics aren't the first team to experience this phenomenon. In fact, there is a long list. Two years ago, the Toronto Raptors lost Vince Carter to injury only to go on a nine-game winning streak to make the playoffs. When the 1980 Los Angeles Lakers lost Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to injury, rookie Magic Johnson came into his own and helped them clinch the championship. The Detroit Pistons traded leading scorer Jerry Stackhouse for Richard Hamilton, and became NBA champions. The New York Giants lost Phil Simms to injury and discovered Jeff Hostetler on their way to winning a Super Bowl.

It happens all the time, and the explanation for it is that, in the absence of greatness, more ordinary but no less valuable qualities can grow.

Holdsclaw's absence with an undisclosed medical condition remains mystifying. She's a hard player to know or understand and obviously one with hidden frailties. Up to this point, she's never been known for selfishness or jaking. The only certainty regarding Holdsclaw is that she's out for the duration -- meaning the Mystics know they have to play without her.

When Holdsclaw was active, some of the Mystics felt less directly responsible for the team's fate, so they simply did less. The most vivid evidence of that was their embarrassing showing against Indiana two weeks ago, when they were only able to muster 42 points. (Anyone who thinks Holdsclaw hasn't delivered around here just needed to check that score to understand how much the team leaned on her.) But since then, each and every one of the Mystics is playing as if they are directly accountable for their won-loss record (16-16), and that's a quality they can take into next season, no matter what the outcome of this one.

Maybe, with Holdsclaw around, some of them passed up shots they should have taken. Maybe some of them thought, "When is it going to be my turn?" Maybe some thought they could hide. Maybe some didn't think they mattered. But now they all know they better matter, or else.

Rookie Alana Beard has burst out of her scoring slump and discovered herself as a pro, averaging 22 points in a four-game win streak that includes last night's victory at San Antonio. Chasity Melvin has at last made her presence felt in the post, and Coco Miller is nailing three-pointers. Why didn't some of these people play this way before now? Why did some of them try to do too much and others not enough? How can a team that lost a full one-third of its offense and rebounding be improved?

"No one expects us to do this well, or go any further," Beard said. "I'm going to be aggressive because it's not expected, and there's nothing to lose."

There you have it.

Even Michael Adams seems to have become a better coach without his star player providing 19 points and eight rebounds night in and night out. When it became clear Holdsclaw would remain on injured reserve, Adams had a reckoning with his players. "Jump on the ship, or get off," he told them. "If you aren't going to be accountable, we'll let someone else play those minutes."

He had an even more direct conversation with Melvin, the center for whom the Mystics traded in the offseason because she was supposed to be a reliable go-to player. Instead, Melvin was a rank underachiever. When Melvin asked to get more minutes on the floor, Adams said bluntly, "You haven't produced with what you do get." It would have to be a fair trade, he said -- more production for more minutes.

Over their four-game winning streak, Melvin has helped lead a scoring charge; at least three Mystics have racked up double figures in successive games. "She's done exactly what I asked," Adams said.

Their starters are playing 30 or more minutes in the shortened rotation, and they're averaging more than 16 assists a game. What that says is that this is a team that has had all the pieces, all along. Melvin, Murriel Page and Nakia Sanford are a fearsome front court; there is no better fast-breaking guard in the league than Tamicha Jackson, or smarter playmaker and distributor of the ball than Stacey Dales-Schuman. Then there is Beard, an all-everything who finds a way to mark up every single section of the box score. Where is the weakness?

That was what Page wanted to know. After the 42-point embarrassment, the veteran led a team meeting and said she was sick of players not showing up in games. The team was gloriously talented and aggressive in practice. "If you watched us in practice, we take it at each other so hard you'd think we were enemies," she said. But when the game clock started they were suddenly tentative and unsure of themselves. Page said: "We're beating the mess out of each other. But why aren't we doing it to other people? There's no way we should be losing games the way we're losing them."

The players had to explore their own psyches for the answer. "We each had to look at ourselves in the mirror," Beard said.

The result of their self-examination is the winning streak. There are still two regular season games left. The Eastern Conference standings are a logjam. The possibility still exists that they could finish in first place -- or last. They finally seem to understand that the end result is entirely up to them.

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