- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2004

‘Mique no mistake about it, the Washington Mystics are a better team without their superstar forward.

Just look at the results since Chamique Holdsclaw stopped playing for the Mystics. The team has won eight of its last 12 games, including a convincing 67-59 win Saturday over the Connecticut Sun in Game1 of the best-of-3 WNBA Eastern Conference semifinal.

The Mystics were 10-16 in games with Holdsclaw, who officially ended her season Sept.8 when she said she had a “minor medical problem” that was neither “career nor life-threatening.”

Holdsclaw doesn’t show up at practices, doesn’t attend games and has distanced herself from her teammates, raising questions about her mysterious situation.

In her absence, however, the Mystics execute better. Players are constantly moving without the ball and not standing around watching Holdsclaw, a three-time WNBA All-Star, launch shots.

“When we had ‘Mique here, she can get her own shot off, she can break down a defense and a lot of our players can’t do that by themselves,” Mystics coach Michael Adams said. “‘Mique would break down defenses, and when she got double-teamed, she’d pass it off to a player. Now, our players are setting better screens, reading each other, just getting the ball to our players in right spots on the floor and that’s why it’s helped us. The ball doesn’t stay on one side of the floor, it goes from one side to the other, and that’s how we’re getting our production.”

Out of respect for their missing teammate, Mystics players won’t say they are better without Holdsclaw, but the message is clear.

“It is unbelievable how we came together as a team,” rookie guard Alana Beard said. “We are like sisters now. It wasn’t like that at the beginning. Now when we are on the court, we are out there fighting for each other.”

It was obvious earlier this season Holdsclaw and Adams weren’t getting along. During a 74-60 loss to Detroit at MCI Center on June11, Holdsclaw approached the bench for a timeout and yelled “the ball goes through me every time down” at Adams, who runs a motion offense.

The friction continued. After an 0-3 trip on the West Coast that dropped the Mystics to 9-12 on July21, Holdsclaw seemed disinterested in Washington’s next home game — a 65-61 win over the Minnesota Lynx. She made just three of 17 shots from the floor and wasn’t involved in team huddles during breaks. She then didn’t accompany the team to Charlotte the following night when the Mystics lost 70-41. Holdsclaw returned to the team on July28 against the Shock at MCI Center and went three of 14 from the floor. It was the last game she played this season.

Holdsclaw’s future with the Mystics remains uncertain, so the Mystics appear ready to make Beard the new cornerstone of the franchise. Beard, selected with the second-overall pick in April’s WNBA Draft, elevated her game and put the Mystics on her back during the season’s stretch run.

Including Saturday’s playoff game, the 5-foot-11 Beard has averaged 18.1 points in the 12 games without Holdsclaw. Other players also have stepped up, realizing they too can be part of the offense. Forward Chasity Melvin has become the first option and has averaged 10.8 points since Holdsclaw’s departure.

Players roles are more defined.

Guard Coco Miller and forward Aiysha Smith provide offense off the bench. Center Nakia Sanford, who is the tallest Mystic at 6-foot-4, crashes the glass. Sanford, who the Mystics are pushing for the WNBA’s most improved player, is the team’s leading rebounder (5.0) in the last 12 games.

“It has to go from Mike [Adams] all the way down to the last person on the bench, we just stayed together,” said Melvin of the team’s change since Holdsclaw left. “We have our ups and downs, we argue, we fight, but the next day it’s a new day. We’re like sisters all of us and Mike is like our big brother who gets on our nerves sometimes.”

Adams’ offensive philosophy of looking inside first and then working the ball out, seemed to work in Game1 against the Sun. And the Mystics’ aggressive defense suffocated the Sun’s starters into 14-for-42 shooting. Nykesha Sales, who was the WNBA’s seventh-best scorer this season (15.2 points), was held to a season-low four points. The series returns to Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., tonight for Game2. Game3, if necessary, will be Wednesday.

Connecticut, the Eastern Conference regular season-champs, needs to free up Sales.

“We played all year for the home-court [advantage], now we’ll find out if it’s worth anything,” Sun coach Mike Thibault said. “[The Mystics] have a chemistry about them that is obvious. They share the basketball and I thought Michael has done a good job keeping them together.”

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