If they hope to be among the four Eastern Conference teams to reach the WNBA playoffs, the Washington Mystics must wrestle with poor free throw shooting, scoring slumps and the distraction surrounding Chamique Holdsclaw's decision to skip the rest of the season because of a medical condition.

Holdsclaw has declined to reveal the condition, triggering a flood of news stories and questions concerning why she was healthy enough to practice two weeks ago but is unable to compete in the final five games.

"All this is a little distracting when all we want to do is think about basketball," said forward Nakia Sanford. "I wish everyone would move on. It's time."

Without Holdsclaw in the lineup, the Mystics are without their top scorer (19 points per game), rebounder (8.3) and, according to Coach Michael Adams, one of the two players on the team who can create their own shots. Rookie Alana Beard, who scored 20 and 26 points in Washington's past two games, is the other.

In addition to the loss of Holdsclaw, Washington has shot less than 65 percent from the free-throw line in four of its past five games, including a dismal 50 percent performance against Indiana on Sept. 4.

In an overtime victory over Sacramento last week, center Chasity Melvin had a chance to win the game in regulation when she went to the foul line with just two seconds left on the clock. She missed both shots.

Adams said that the team works on free throws everyday and that he is not worried about it. Is Melvin taking a few extra shots after practice just in case she has a chance to win another game?

"Nah. Free throw shooting is all mental," she said yesterday after practice. "I was going to stay after practice to work on it but I could shoot a hundred and still miss. Everybody has a rhythm when they shoot free throws and that's where you miss the shot, because you get up there and rush. So I'm just going to take my time."

Starting guard-forward Stacey Dales-Schulman is also trying to work her way out of a shooting slump. She has hit only five of her last 28 field goal attempts (17.8 percent). She went 1 for 9 against the Liberty on Friday.

Today's opponent, the Houston Comets, feature two of the WNBA's best players in Tina Thompson (19.7 and 6.4 rebounds) and Sheryl Swoopes (15.6 points and 5.1 rebounds). But the pair's supporting cast was depleted two weeks ago when starting guard Kedra Holland-Corn asked for her release. Houston has lost three straight games and five of its last seven.