Winning the games you are supposed to win, in essence, is what separates very good teams from the simply good ones. The Washington Mystics (8-7) will have a chance to show just how good they are tonight when they host the Detroit Shock (6-7) at MCI Center.
Though the Mystics lead the Shock by only one game in the Eastern Conference standings, the teams are going in opposite directions. The Mystics have won five of their last six while Detroit, which was a popular pick to reach the WNBA Finals during the preseason, has lost six of seven and suddenly finds itself tied with the New York Liberty for fourth place.
Detroit is coming off an especially ugly 75-66 home loss to the Houston Comets on Tuesday even though star forward Swin Cash made her first appearance of the season. Cash, who tore her left anterior cruciate ligament on Sept. 11, was in the starting lineup and scored two points in 18 minutes, but couldn't inspire her teammates to victory.
Despite working with four players who will be in Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game -- Cash, forward Cheryl Ford, guard Deanna Nolan and center Ruth Riley -- Shock Coach Bill Laimbeer has been unable to snap his team out of its funk.
"Right now, I'm doing a fairly poor job of coaching this ballclub because I can't get them to find the desire to win," Laimbeer said following Tuesday's loss.
"We need to find that edge, that heart," he said. "We don't have the will to win."
The Mystics, who are coming off consecutive wins over last-place Charlotte, contributed to the Shock's woes with a 69-55 win at Detroit on June 24. The victory snapped a three-game road losing streak for the Mystics and was probably the best performance by Coach Richie Adubato's team this season.
"That was one of the biggest ones because it got us a win on the road and we really needed that at that time," Adubato said. "And any time you beat them at their place, you have to be happy with that because believe me, that is a good basketball team. This game [tonight] is also a very important game because of the road trip we have coming up. It's almost an impossible road trip."
Following tonight's game, the Mystics will embark on a five-game road trip starting July 13 at Seattle. The trip will include a back-to-back set at Phoenix and Sacramento as well as games at Los Angeles, where the Mystics have never won, and at Houston, which has won five straight.
A victory tonight would serve the dual purpose of kicking an Eastern Conference rival while it's down while also creating momentum before the season's longest and most important road trip.
"The key to playing Detroit is being ready to play physical basketball," said Mystics guard Alana Beard, who will represent Washington in the all-star game. "They are very physical, and they aren't going to give you anything easy. We have to be ready to match that."
Mystics Note: Tonight's game, which tips off at 7 p.m., will air on NBA-TV.