Tuesday, August 7, 2007

After a 0-8 start, the Washington Mystics’ playoff chances appeared slim.

They responded by winning five of their next seven games.

Now, with Washington barely holding the Eastern Conference’s last playoff spot heading into the season’s final weeks, the Mystics feel they need a similar response.

Washington responded from a road loss to Indiana last week with home victories over New York and Chicago, both of which trail the Mystics (12-15) by one game for the conference’s final playoff spot.

“That [Indiana loss] was a game we should have had, and everyone knew that,” said guard Alana Beard, who was named the Eastern Conference player of the week. “We can’t afford mental errors, because every little mistake we make in practice will translate to our play on the court.”

Washington has seven games left, including a four-game road trip that starts today in San Antonio. The Mystics feel they can’t afford to lose one more game if they want to clinch a playoff spot.

That sense of urgency has led coach Tree Rollins to change his philosophy. Normally, Rollins allows players to play through mistakes. But now he is willing to pull players — even his starters — as soon as they make one.

“As we got closer to being able to get our foot into the playoff door, my coaching style changed,” Rollins said. “When I was asked to take over as head coach, I still had to teach and develop the younger players. But that went out the window now that we’re shooting for something bigger right now.”

That was evident Friday, when Rollins benched forward Monique Currie and guards Tamara James and Nikki Blue as soon as they committed errors in the Mystics’ 80-68 victory over New York.

Still, the Mystics’ changes have kept them in the playoff picture, especially after their disastrous start. The Mystics were 1-9 until they won three of four on a June road trip to keep the postseason a possibility.

“There were a lot of changes that was a lot to bear in the beginning,” forward DeLisha Milton-Jones said. “Everyone had the opportunity to talk about things when we were on the road. Sitting on a bus, it was easier to strike up a conversation because we were all together. We talked about it, and it relieved our emotions, and we moved on.”

The Mystics’ second extended road trip includes four games in six days. As on their June trip, Mystics players hope time away from home will help them bond heading into the final push.

“We want to put ourselves in the position where we don’t want to have to wait for what other teams will do,” Beard said. “We want to put ourselves in the position to clinch the playoffs.”

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