- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2008

There was a sense of urgency on the Verizon Center practice court this week. Plays were run more physically. The coaching staff addressed mistakes more critically. The general manager appealed for the players’ dedication.

The entire Washington Mystics organization is well aware how important the next two weeks are. Washington sits 2 1/2 games out of the fourth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot. And with six games in 11 days before the Olympic break, the playoff hopes of the Mystics (8-12) could hinge on their performance during this stretch.

“This is crunch time,” guard Alana Beard said. “We’ve played over half of our games, and our goal is to make it to the playoffs. If we close out this stretch on a run before the month break, I think we can come back in good shape.”

The upcoming stretch is the most grueling the Mystics have faced this season. They have played games as many as five days apart earlier in the schedule but will play their first back-to-back games of the year Thursday and Friday and will enjoy no more than two days’ rest until the month-long hiatus begins.

All the while, fifth-place Washington will try to make up ground in the East.

“We’re gonna see how people respond,” forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin said. “Everybody’s got to be ready to go and be really focused. We’ve got to know what we’re doing with each team, and we’ve got to execute. We can’t let anybody stop us.”

The upcoming games provide a great opportunity for the Mystics to inch closer in the playoff race. Four of the six games are against teams ahead of Washington - two against third-place New York, one against front-running Detroit and one against second-place Connecticut - prompting McWilliams-Franklin to refer to the stretch as “Christmas in July.”

It has come at an opportune time as well. The Mystics played one of their best games of the season in beating the Sun on Sunday. Instead of again having to claw back in the second half, they took the lead late in the first quarter and held it for the remainder of the game.

“What was great for us is that we really had to fight,” Mystics coach Tree Rollins said. “They came back pretty well, but when the game was on the line, we were able to execute our offense and stop them. We finished the game.”

Not everything was great, however. Rollins said he was pleased with Washington’s performance for 37 minutes Sunday, but in the film session he showed the team only the opening three minutes of the game. That was an ugly stretch for the Mystics; they shot 20 percent and committed three turnovers, resulting in an early 9-2 hole.

Four of the six games before the break are at Verizon, where the Mystics have a 5-4 record this year. Rollins said they need to make the District a more formidable place for opposing teams.

“If we can do that, I think we have a fair chance of making the playoffs,” he said. “But we also have to steal a few more on the road. We just want to stay tight. We don’t want to be so far behind that out of the break we have to fight for everything.”