The Washington Mystics, whose four-game winning streak has put them in the WNBA playoff race, find themselves in an even more curious position entering tonight's game against the New York Liberty at MCI Center: They're a team opponents are gunning for.

The Mystics (10-17) have posted two wins against the Eastern Conference-leading Liberty (15-11), the only conference opponent that hasn't beaten Washington this season.

"This team has to realize that maybe we're a little bit of a target," Coach Nancy Darsch said. "We have to show some confidence and composure dealing with that."

And how they deal with it may determine whether the fifth-place Mystics stay in the playoff hunt. With five games remaining, Washington (10-17) is 2 1/2 games out of the third playoff spot, held by Detroit (12-14). Orlando (10-16) is a half-game in front of the Mystics.

Darsch is not taking the team's winning streak lightly. The Mystics practiced for 40 minutes longer than scheduled yesterday, most of the extra time spent on defensive adjustments in preparation for New York guard Teresa Weatherspoon and center Kym Hampton.

During the team's winning streak, the longest in franchise history, the Mystics have cut back on their free-lancing offensive urges and executed with precision and patience. The Mystics had a season-high 23 assists in their 80-45 win against Cleveland on Sunday night. That number was the product of pressure by Darsch three games earlier.

"Against Detroit [on Aug. 2], we urged the players to get the offense down," Darsch said. "It was the [24th] game of the season, and it was time to start executing it."

The Mystics did, winning 75-70 in Detroit, to start the streak. Since then, the Mystics have shot over 50 percent twice and are fourth in the league in shooting percentage (43.4).

The record-setting 35-point win over Cleveland showcased what the Mystics have been working on all season and polishing during the last four games: building a lead, and then burying the team under it. The Mystics have had problems sustaining leads all season, but against the Rockers, Washington turned a 14-point halftime lead into a decisive 37-point advantage in the first 14 minutes of the second half.

"I said at halftime, 'This game should not be close,' " Darsch said. "We had won the close games, and we wanted to come out strong in the second half. I can't say I was expecting to win by 35, but it shouldn't have been close. Cleveland also didn't play hard and didn't execute, and the teams that we're playing the rest of the season aren't going to come out and play like that."

It helps that forward Chamique Holdsclaw and guard Nikki McCray are playing their most inspired games of the season, playing within the offense and doing a better job of getting everyone involved.

Holdsclaw was named WNBA player of the week last week. During the four-game winning streak, Holdsclaw averaged 22 points a game and shot 57 percent from the field. McCray made 8 of 11 shots in the win against Cleveland, including three three-pointers.

"All of the transition points and her and Chamique's plays have come within the offense," Darsch said, adding that the improvisational play "is way down now."

The Mystics' offense is simply playing at a higher level. Every player who played in the win against Cleveland scored, including the reserves, who combined to score 24 points. After being plagued all season by impatience and rushed shots, the players are getting a feel for how it works.

"We're getting to know each other a lot better," Holdsclaw said. "We just got tired of losing. There's nothing special going on. We're just being more patient and things are jelling."

MYSTICS PREVIEW

Data: vs. New York Liberty.

Where: MCI Center.

When: 7 p.m.

Tickets: Available.

Radio: WGAY-1260.

Records: Liberty 15-11, Mystics 10-17.

Injuries: Mystics F-C Penny Moore (shoulder) is on the injured list. Liberty F Rebecca Lobo (left knee) and Carolyn Jones-Young (right knee, pregnancy) are on the injured list. C Kym Hampton (right knee) is day-to-day.