Washington Mystics enter WNBA playoffs with confidence

The Mystics clinch the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and get set to play Atlanta in the first round of the WNBA playoffs.
By Katie Carrera
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; 12:18 AM

When Washington Mystics managing partner Sheila Johnson announced in the summer of 2008 that she would rebuild the underachieving franchise and hold it to new levels of accountability, she didn't anticipate how quickly the changes would manifest themselves on the court.

Nor did Angela Taylor expect it when she signed on as general manager in October of the same year and began to revamp the team. They both envisioned sustained success eventually, but two years wasn't much time to right more than a decade worth of basketball wrongs in which the franchise often was among the league leaders in attendance but regularly fell short of its fans' expectations in the standings.

On Wednesday, when the Mystics take the floor against the Atlanta Dream at Verizon Center for the first game of a best-of-three Eastern Conference semifinal series as the top seed, they will have already exceeded even their biggest believers' hopes with a historic 2010 season played under improbable circumstances.

"I would love to say I planned this, that everything has gone according to a plan," Taylor said. "But when we came on board it was just to put the infrastructure together, bring in the right people and do what we believed would make this team successful in the long run. How quickly it's all come together I couldn't have predicted at all.

"Our players want to win more than anybody knows," Taylor added. "It was just a matter of instilling that belief that they could and creating a partnership where they knew we'd help them get where they wanted to go."

Taylor and Coach Julie Plank wanted progress on the court in their second campaign, but a month before the season started news arrived that in the past might have led to the Mystics' derailment. Franchise player Alana Beard, the all-star whose presence lured Taylor to the team in the first place, would miss the entire season after undergoing surgery on her left ankle.

Across the league, expectations for the Mystics plummeted. In an annual preseason survey, the WNBA's general managers picked Washington to finish next to last in the Eastern Conference and fail to reach the postseason.

Stung by the predictions, the Mystics recorded the winningest season in franchise history at 22-12, clinched the organization's first back-to-back playoff appearances and captured the team's first regular season conference title.

"One of the players told me that we had been picked to finish dead last and that no one had faith in them," Johnson said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday. "We had to earn that [respect]. From our past records, we had never proven otherwise. What has happened this year is we've earned the respect for the first time of the Washington media and our opponents."

From the instant they knew about Beard's absence and the limitations of a roster consisting of only 10 healthy players, Plank and the Mystics said they never doubted their ability to win but also understood a "committee" effort would be a regular requirement.

Washington's style under Plank has never been flashy; rather it depends upon grit and dedication to defense and rebounding. If everyone bought in to their roles and those priorities they could rely less on any single individual and more on the whole group.

The Mystics were 11-2 when four players scored in double figures and 18-8 when they outrebounded an opponent. Their league-best scoring defense gave up only 73.3 points per game.

"We knew it would be a lot more difficult to win the East and win a WNBA championship without Alana, but we're all very confident in ourselves and each other," said Washington native Monique Currie, who acted as one of the team's main pillars this season and averages the second-highest points per game (14.1) on the team. "Not too many people believed in our locker room, but we have great chemistry and we've continued to work hard all season. We believe in the way we're playing and know we're capable of winning at a high level. We've beaten every team in the league at least once . . . We're ready for this next step in the playoffs. We have bigger aspirations than just the regular season."

Currie is one of several players experiencing career seasons. Third-year forward Crystal Langhorne (averaging 16.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per game) continued to develop into a reliable inside presence and could anchor the franchise for years to come. Point guard Lindsey Harding has her best assist to turnover ratio (1.5) and continues to hone her uncanny knack for reading her teammates in any situation.

Then there's Katie Smith, who's past the prime of her career but remains arguably Washington's best defender. With 35 games of playoff experience, she knows exactly what is necessary to keep adding to the Mystics' accomplishments.

"As long as we give the effort we've been showing these last few games we can accomplish anything," Smith said. "You can't take anything you've accomplished for granted or you'll have problems, but I think everyone on this team is really excited and hungry for the opportunity to be in this situation. Where we are right now is a testament to everybody, the coaches and players, for buying in and keeping at it all year. I don't think that effort will stop now."

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