Washington Mystics Are Looking for Breathing Room in Crowded Eastern Conference

By Bill Oram
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 2009

The Washington Mystics' season has been like being stranded in an elevator that only goes between middle floors. The penthouse is already occupied, by the Indiana Fever, and the basement is cluttered. In the first two months of the year, winning and losing have been almost equally prevalent in Washington. For the Mystics, a .500 winning percentage is not a barometer of success or failure, but an everyday reality.

The Mystics stand at 10-9, tied for second place behind Indiana (16-4) in the Eastern Conference. Three other teams are within two games of the Mystics, making Washington's hold on second place slippery at best.

"We're trying to stay in second in the East," Coach Julie Plank said after Wednesday's practice. "I don't want to slip to third."

That's why the next five games, starting Friday against Detroit, are crucial. Washington will play the Shock and Connecticut Sun twice over the next week, and then the last-place New York Liberty, before embarking on a four-game swing through the West.

Washington has beaten Detroit, Connecticut and New York (twice) this season, and a winning streak during the upcoming stretch could give it some breathing room in the crowded East.

"We stay aware of all the standings and we know things are really close," forward Crystal Langhorne said. "And if we could get a few wins out of this stretch, we could really separate ourselves."

But wins against Detroit and New York, the conference's bottom two teams, and Connecticut, which is tied with the Mystics for second place, are not givens. The Mystics beat the Sun and Shock in the first and third games of the season, and the two wins over New York have been by a combined four points.

By the end of next week, the Mystics will be very familiar with Detroit and Connecticut. Washington hosts the Shock on Friday and Tuesday, and will travel to Connecticut on Sunday and then host the Sun on Aug. 14.

"I think the teams are totally different," Plank said. "We played them both early, our first and third games of the year, and had two road wins. So anytime you play a team, beat them once, they're going to want to come back."

Detroit, the defending WNBA champion, is dangerous, Plank said. The Shock is led by Katie Smith and Deanna Nolan. Nolan scored 26 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in Detroit's win over the Liberty on Tuesday.

The Mystics have had similar opportunities for big Eastern Conference wins. They're just 7-6 in conference games, and were stung by three losses to Indiana in a two-week span.

"In some senses we are disappointed," guard Alana Beard said.

"We've had so many close games we could have pulled off and we could have been in such a better position in the East, we could have been right behind Indiana."

The Fever's 5 1/2 -game lead means first place is likely out of reach for Washington and other Eastern Conference teams. But the Mystics said they don't want to be jockeying for playoff positioning at the end of the season.

"We don't want to come to the last few games worrying about we need to beat this team to make the playoffs," Langhorne said. "We want to take care of business early."

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