A team effort has the Washington Mystics pushing toward the playoffs

Lindsey Harding, left, and Katie Smith are playing more minutes than expected because of injuries.
Lindsey Harding, left, and Katie Smith are playing more minutes than expected because of injuries. (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
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By Jorge Castillo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010

When it was announced less than two weeks before the start of training camp that Alana Beard, the Washington Mystics' four-time all-star, would miss the entire season with an ankle injury, 2010 became a question mark for the team.

Eighteen games in, it isn't much of a mystery anymore. Fueled by the league's second-best scoring defense, the Mystics are off to their best start since 2002 and lead the Eastern Conference with a 12-6 record, percentage points ahead of the Atlanta Dream (14-8), as they head into Sunday afternoon's game against Chicago.

"Our goal from the start was to win the East," said Julie Plank, the team's second-year coach. "We got a taste of the playoffs last year and I think our team is very confident with getting back to the playoffs and making a deep run. I have very high expectations for our team.

"We lost Alana Beard early, but I think our team responded really well. We've had different people step up."

Filling in for Beard has been a team effort headed by 2009 WNBA most improved player Crystal Langhorne and veteran Katie Smith, who was signed by the Mystics in the offseason. A first-time all-star this season, Langhorne has developed into one of the league's most productive players. After struggling through her rookie season in 2008, the 6-foot-2 forward averaged 12 points and 7.9 rebounds per game last season. June's Eastern Conference player of the month, Langhorne is shouldering more of the scoring load this season and is averaging 17.1 points to go with 6.4 rebounds per game.

Washington originally signed the 5-foot-11 Smith believing she would add backcourt depth and championship experience off the bench for a roster that already featured Beard, Marissa Coleman of Maryland, Lindsey Harding and Matee Ajavon. Instead, with Beard out, the 36-year-old veteran has started 17 of the team's 18 games and is averaging just under 10 points in more than 32 minutes per contest.

Smith isn't the only Mystic playing more minutes than expected. Because of injuries and the WNBA's 11-player roster limit, installed prior to the 2009 season, the Mystics suit up just nine players per game. Since teams do not have injured reserve spots on the roster, Beard and Jacinta Monroe, who's been out with a fractured left hand she suffered on June 19, are still on the active roster. Monroe is scheduled to return by early to mid August.

As a result, Langhorne and Harding both average more than 34 minutes per game this season, while Monique Currie, who is second on the team in scoring, averages just less than 28 minutes a contest -- up from the 21.4 she averaged in 2008.

The effects could be seen in Thursday afternoon's practice -- Langhorne was on the sideline with the team's trainer for most of it and Smith sat out several drills.

"I think it's tougher for practice," said Smith, the two-time WNBA champion and three-time Olympic gold medalist, of having nine healthy players on the roster. "In a game, the majority of the time you play nine-deep, 10, maybe 11. Nine isn't necessarily a bad rotation. We're a little light in the post -- we just don't have a lot options when we get in foul trouble and all that. Practice-wise is the hardest thing, we can't even play five-on-five."

Turnovers also have been an issue for Washington. The Mystics turn the ball over close to 18 times per game, which ranks second in the league. The team's rebounding numbers also are down slightly from last season, by about two per game, but they average a plus-4.7 rebounding margin per game.

An improved defense has proven to be the difference in 2010. Last season, Washington allowed an average of 77.1 points per game -- and 76.3 through 18 games. This season, the Mystics allow just 73.1 points per game, behind only the Indiana Fever's 70.6 in the league rankings.

"For the most part, we've been playing really good team defense and that's been winning us games even when our offense hasn't been doing too well," Langhorne said.

Sunday, the Mystics, who had their four-game winning streak snapped in Thursday's loss to the New York Liberty, return home for the first time since June 29 and will look to shut down a Chicago Sky offense that ranks 10th out of 12 in the league in scoring. The Mystics have won two out of three meetings with the Sky this season.

After falling to the Liberty, the East's fifth-place team, the Mystics are looking to get back into the groove they were in before the time off. With games against Atlanta and third-place Indiana coming up next week, wins against weaker teams such as Chicago will be important for playoff positioning.

"We just got to get back in our rhythm, back in the flow," Harding said. "The expectation of coming back and playing well [against New York] like we did [before the break] is really hard to do but we got that under us and we're ready for Chicago.

"We can be really good. I feel like we're a championship team and if we continue to play well and continue to get better, we can do that."

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