Perhaps it was the five-game losing streak. Or maybe it was the early morning flight back from Detroit. Whatever the reason, the Washington Mystics looked weary and broken-spirited as they practiced at MCI Center yesterday in preparation for tonight's game against the New York Liberty.
Technically, the Mystics (14-17) are still alive in the race for the fourth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, but a loss tonight would officially eliminate them. The players know that many pieces must fall into place for them to overtake Detroit, which is a game up on them after defeating Washington, 66-52, on Sunday.
The Mystics need to win their last three games (tonight against New York, at Connecticut on Friday and at home against Detroit on Saturday) and need Detroit to lose its last three games. Even if the teams end up with the same record, the Shock would earn the playoff spot because it has a better conference record.
"We're all frustrated about being in this position," forward DeLisha Milton-Jones said. "We know how important these games have been, but we just haven't been able to get over the hump and play like we know we can. Five straight losses? We're a better team than that."
The Shock has games remaining at last-place Charlotte and at home against Indiana before ending the season against the Mystics at MCI Center on Saturday. The Mystics can only hope the game means something after this recent stretch, in which they have played their worst basketball of the season.
The losing streak, the season's longest, has highlighted some of the weaknesses Washington was able to mask as it built a 14-12 record and moved up to third place in the conference standings following a victory over Indiana on Aug. 7. First and foremost, the Mystics have hurt themselves by failing to protect their home court.
Despite regularly playing in front of the WNBA's largest and most supportive crowds -- fans sitting in the first three or four rows are known to call out referees by their first name -- the Mystics are only 8-7 at home. The Mystics were 11-6 at MCI Center last season, finished 17-17 overall and made the playoffs.
In May when they were still playing without all-star guard Alana Beard, who missed the entire preseason with an ankle injury, the Mystics dug themselves a hole by losing their first three home games.
By contrast, Washington's rivals have taken care of business at home. Detroit has won its last six home games, including Sunday's crucial win over the Mystics. New York, which is a half-game behind Indiana for second place, has won four straight at home, including a 72-66 win over the Mystics last Tuesday, and is 10-6 at Madison Square Garden this season.
"I said it back then, that those early losses at home were going to come back and haunt us because we knew we would be playing five of our last seven on the road," Mystics Coach Richie Adubato said. "I just knew that those early losses were going to hurt us and they have. In this league, with how even the teams are, it's critical that you win those home games."
Washington's other problems are not as easy to identify. The Mystics rank 12th among 13 WNBA teams in rebounding and have hit only 70.5 percent of their free throws, but in most other statistical categories, they rank around the middle.
"I can't say that it's been any one thing that you can point to and say, 'That's the problem,' " said Beard, who leads the Mystics in scoring with an average of 14.6 points. "It's a lot of little things that add to the bigger picture. Defense wins games, and we haven't been playing it. We've been very inconsistent. Offensively, the continuity hasn't been there. It's one or two passes and a shot goes up. Our execution hasn't been there, and that's why we've lost some of these games that we could have won."
The losing streak has been especially frustrating for Beard, who as a rookie last season helped the Mystics win five of their last six games to make the playoffs as the fourth seed. Beard was named to her first all-star team this season. One look around MCI Center and all of the fans wearing Beard's No. 20 reveals that she has replaced Chamique Holdsclaw as the face of the franchise, but that won't dull the pain if Washington is left out of the postseason.
"It would be very disappointing, very disappointing," Beard said. "But sometimes things don't work the way you want them to. Sometimes, you have to go through valleys to achieve good things. But right now, the season is far from being over. The only scenario I'm looking at is us needing to win these last three games. We can do it. I have no doubt in my mind that we can. We just have to put it together."