Most professional athletes will tell you that only coaches, media and fans follow the standings. According to Washington Mystics all-star guard Alana Beard, players typically worry about only the next game.
As the WNBA season moves into its final two weeks, however, the Mystics have no choice but to be aware of every change in the Eastern Conference standings. On Sunday night, everything went wrong.
Despite a frantic second-half comeback, the Mystics lost, 80-77, at Connecticut while the New York Liberty and Detroit Shock won their games. That confluence of events shoved Washington into fifth place heading into tonight's game at New York.
Only the top four teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs.
The Mystics and Shock are both 14-14, but Detroit, which plays at Phoenix tonight, holds an edge because it is 9-7 in conference play while Washington is 7-7. The Mystics visit Detroit on Sunday and host the Shock in the season finale Aug. 27.
"Our players understand how critical each of these games are if we want to make the playoffs," Mystics Coach Richie Adubato said. "Tonight [at New York] is probably the biggest game of the year. I thought [Sunday's game at Connecticut] was the biggest game of the year. They keep getting bigger. With the way Detroit is playing, we have to get a win, no question."
After scuffling through much of the season, Detroit has ripped off four straight wins and appears to be finding its stride now that all-star guard Katie Smith has settled into the lineup after being traded from Minnesota July 31.
New York (16-13) has leapfrogged Washington into third place thanks to a three-game winning streak. The Liberty also has defeated the Mystics twice this season, so a win tonight could provide a tiebreaker advantage. The Mystics and Liberty will meet again Aug. 23 at MCI Center.
To win tonight, the Mystics must come out playing the way they did in the final minutes of Sunday's loss at Connecticut, when they erased a 19-point lead and had a chance to force overtime when DeLisha Milton-Jones missed a potential game-tying three-pointer at the buzzer.
The Mystics haven't lost three straight games since early June when the Liberty dropped them to 1-4 with a 77-68 win at MCI Center. At that point, the playoffs were nothing but a pipe dream. But the Mystics clawed their way back into the race.
Adubato hopes to see his team do the same now that the playoffs are actually in sight.
"They are giving the energy and the hustle and the heart you need to win, so you can't complain about that," Adubato said. "They showed the other night that no matter what, they aren't going to pack it in and quit. We had them on the ropes there at the end. You could feel it. We have an opportunity here in front of us; it's just a matter of going out and grabbing it."
Mystics Notes: Curtis Symonds has been named the Mystics' chief operating officer and will oversee the team's day-to-day operations. Symonds is a former executive at Black Entertainment Television.