- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Washington Mystics (17-17), East No. 4
What's working: Right now, the Sun are hitting on all cylinders and just playing extremely good ball. Connecticut has a tremendous amount of talent, but it really all starts with Lindsay Whalen, who has had a great rookie season after a somewhat slow start.
Like every great point guard, this rookie makes the players around her better, makes smart decisions with the ball and understands time-score-possession, which is very important. Whalen also is playing with a lot of enthusiasm and confidence and is running the team exactly how coach Mike Thibault wants.
Whalen and reserve Debbie Black do a great job of pushing tempo, and the Sun get a boost from posts Taj McWilliams-Franklin (12.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and Wendy Palmer (9.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg), who's having her best year since she was an All-Star for Detroit in 2000. Both get rewarded with a lot of layups because they run the floor so well.
Katie Douglas (10.6 ppg) also gets better every year. She's a tough guard and tremendous shooter who has a good pro mentality and continues to refine her ballhandling.
The Sun also like to get after you defensively, and do OK on the boards. All five starters average at least 9.0 points, led by Nykesha Sales (above) and her team-high 15.2 scoring average. Also, Asjha Jones is playing some of the best basketball of any reserve right now, averaging 6.6 points and 3.5 boards in 20 minutes.
What's working: Like Minnesota, a lot of people wrote off the Mystics when Chamique Holdsclaw went MIA. But now we're all eating crow, because Washington is one of the hottest teams in the league, and it all started when Holdsclaw finally ended the mystery and announced she wouldn't return this season.
Before that, everything was up in the air. Would 'Mique return? What was ailing her? She'd practice one day, then skip the next. The focus was anywhere but the court. Now, everyone has a new sense of responsibility, everyone is counted on to produce and the chemistry that was so sorely lacking is back.
Rookie Alana Beard (12.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.6 apg, 2.1 spg, 42 percent from field and 38 percent on 3-pointers) has stepped up and is playing with incredible confidence. Beard (above) was a outstanding in college, but the pros could have been a struggle because her peers are now just as athletic, big and strong. That meant no more putting her head down and just powering in on the dribble-drive. Instead, Beard worked to improve her outside shot in her final two seasons of college, and it has paid off.
Washington's strength is the contribution it's getting from every player on the roster. Chasity Melvin is playing hard. Murriel Page has been consistent. Nakia Sanford could be the league's Most Improved Player. Stacey Dales-Schuman brings a lot of poise and know-how. And Tamicha Jackson can be a back-breaker, much like she was vs. the Mercury on Friday with her long-range bombs. Simply, Washington is rebounding, playing defense, getting to the foul line, and perhaps most importantly, winning on the road.
What needs work: There's no way to put this nicely, but if you've watched the Sun play, you know their shot selection can sometimes be atrocious. And that can be deadly in the postseason, because not only do these horrible shots turn over the ball, they can also kill a run.
Connecticut, which ranks 10th in 3-point shooting (32.6 percent), must be more careful not to ruin its momentum with poor shots.
What needs work: The Mystics had a tremendous lack of chemistry and discord in their locker room during Holdsclaw's turmoil. Nobody knew their role, and as a result, the team practically imploded. Can they continue to put it behind them and rally together?
This is a great franchise with some of the best fans -- who, by the way, deserve credit for sticking by the Mystics through mediocrity and five head coaches over seven seasons. Now, the front office is solid and Michael Adams just needs to be left alone to do the job he was hired for.
X-factor: Connecticut's passing game can carry it all the way to the conference final. The Sun have good spacing and pass the ball very efficiently at every position, on the perimeter and in the paint. And the passing helps set up open looks for Whalen, Douglas and Sales.
Sales, specifically, is a very important part of the Sun's game plan. Yes, she's a proven veteran and six-time All-Star, but she needs to be very consistent, reach double figures, rebound and defend.
X-factor: If Jackson plays under control and makes good decisions with the ball, the Mystics could be successful. But too often Jackson fails to realize the situation doesn't revolve around her, and she goes for the home run, taking a bad shot or making a bad pass. On Friday, she scored eight points on just three field goals, but that included two critical 3-pointers. Sometimes that's all she has to do, and Jackson must continue to mature and recognize that she can make or break this team.
How they match up: Unlike some teams that backed their way into the postseason, both the Sun and Mystics are playing very hot right now and really earned their way into the playoffs.
For as good as Connecticut's passing is, the Sun will get a huge defensive test. Typically, the Sun are great at penetrating in and making the pitch. That's tough to stop because the defense can't usually catch up to good passes. However, no one has a faster defensive backcourt than Washington. Jackson will look to disrupt Whalen, turn her in the backcourt once or twice and just change the tempo, only if that means getting an extra three, four or five seconds to tick off the clock. And Beard should have the edge in speed whether she's guarding Sales or Douglas.
If Washington's speed weren't enough, it also is good at rebounding and has the capability to knock down its shots, the two best ways to slow down a team that likes to run.
Connecticut went 3-1 against Washington during the regular season, with a 9.3-point average margin of victory in its wins. The Mystics scored their lone victory in their last meeting, but that was back on July 30. The Sun won both games at the Mohegan Sun and split at the MCI Center.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.
Two of the hottest teams in the league clash in a first-round playoff series in the East.