At halftime of the Washington Mystics' game Sunday against Houston, fans were quick to note how differently the team was playing in the absence of Chamique Holdsclaw.

"They are playing more like a team," said one fan from near the front row.

The loss of Holdsclaw's 19 points and 8.3 rebounds was expected to sap the team's offense and leave a gaping hole on defense. The three-time all-star, out for the remainder of the season with an undisclosed medical condition, was a rebounding presence and long the team's first offensive option. But during the Mystics' three-game winning streak that has thrust them in the middle of the playoff mix, the offense has diversified and the team appears to be playing with newfound cohesion.

"All I can tell you is that it feels right when we play together and everybody touches the ball," guard-forward Stacey Dales-Schuman said. "You want that to happen. The team's chances of scoring are elevated drastically. It spreads the floor, allows your post to go to work and your guards to cut and move."

The numbers bear that out: During the three-game win streak, the Mystics have averaged 16.3 assists and at least three players have scored in double figures in each game. In three straight losses before the streak, the team averaged 12.6 assists.

"We have to get scoring from every position on the floor now," Coach Michael Adams said recently, referring specifically to center Chasity Melvin and forward Nakia Sanford. "They are going to have to score for us to have any success."

Also stepping up is guard-forward Alana Beard, who is making a late charge for the WNBA's rookie of the year award. Over the past three games, she has averaged 22.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals.

The run comes at a good time. The Mystics (15-16), who are tied with New York, start a crucial three-game road stretch tonight at San Antonio to close the season. They trail first-place Charlotte and Connecticut by a game (both are 16-15) and Detroit (16-17) by percentage points with three games to play in the WNBA's Eastern Conference.

The top four teams from each conference advance to the postseason. Washington is 4-10 on the road; the Silver Stars, meantime, are 5-10 at SBC Center.

WNBA Note: Ratings for ABC's and ESPN2's telecasts of WNBA games are up 14 and 17 percent respectively from a year ago, according to the league.

The season-opening telecast featuring the Phoenix Mercury at Connecticut was the highest-rated WNBA game (regular season or playoffs) ever on ABC, and the July 11 telecast featuring the Mercury at the Liberty was the highest-rated WNBA regular season game ever on ESPN2.

* SHOCK 82, LIBERTY 71: Cheryl Ford had 20 points and 13 rebounds and host Detroit moved a step closer to the playoffs with an overtime victory.

The win put the defending champion Shock (16-17) into third place in the Eastern Conference, percentage points ahead of New York and Washington. The Shock can clinch a playoff spot with a win in Sunday's season finale against Charlotte.

* SPARKS 73, MERCURY 60: Lisa Leslie made 11 of 17 shots and scored a season-high 31 points to lead sharp-shooting Los Angeles at home.

Leslie also was 9 of 12 from the free throw line and added seven rebounds.

* COMETS 70, LYNX 59: Houston kept its playoff hopes alive with a win at home. Tina Thompson scored 27 points and Sheryl Swoopes added 15 for the Comets (13-18).