Beard, Mystics no longer in background

Updated: July 31, 2006, 12:56 PM ET
By Nancy Lieberman | Special to ESPN.com

Thursday was just another ordinary night in the WNBA.

PLAYOFF PONDERINGS
While there's no mystery as to which four East teams will reach the playoffs, the West remains fairly wide open. Los Angeles looks to clinch the top spot, especially with Sacramento's recent three-game skid, which the Monarchs snapped Sunday.

The big debate might be whether the Monarchs can hold off the Comets for second place in the division. Through Sunday, the Monarchs' lead is just one game, and their matchup in Sacramento on Tuesday could be key, although Houston is already 3-0 vs. the defending champs this season.

Seattle, which sits two games back of Houston, remains the favorite for fourth in the West, despite a one-point loss to L.A. at home on Sunday -- the first day this season all 14 teams have played. The Storm are 1 games ahead of San Antonio, but truly have no breathing room as the last few weeks have been marred with inconsistent play.
-- Nancy Lieberman

Chicago lost. Houston won. And, as usual, all eyes were on Diana Taurasi.

And for good reason. The Phoenix All-Star -- who's a fan favorite from coast to coast after winning three straight NCAA titles at Connecticut -- tied this season's single-game scoring high with a career-best 41 points. Though the Mercury ended up losing, the second straight defeat in what has become a four-game skid, Taurasi also became the first player to score more than 32 points against Houston in the franchise's storied 10-year history.

Several states away, meanwhile, Alana Beard was blowing it up, too. Just four days after a career-high 30 points, the Washington star notched 26 to lead the Mystics in a rout of the Sky.

And … no one noticed. While it's fair to say a win over Chicago this season is nothing to brag about (the expansion Sky have won a woeful four games), it's also fair to note that Beard's efforts have long remained in the background.

No matter the game or the night, Beard continues to be one of the WNBA's best all-around players. But like Katie Smith (and through no fault of Taurasi's), the focus always seems to fall on Beard's peers. Perhaps it's because she went to a college in hopes of helping it build a dynasty rather than add another wing to its trophy case -- and then never did win that national championship at Duke. But more likely, Beard -- does anyone even remember she unseated Taurasi to win the 2004 Wade Trophy? -- remains out of the spotlight because the soft-spoken, two-time All-Star never seeks it.

Though that in itself is one of Beard's most revered traits, she has transformed into a fantastic pro who is respected by both players and coaches around the league. And if her personality isn't flamboyant, her stats are in this, her third season, which is easily the best of her pro career.

Through Sunday, Beard's averaging 18.0 points, four more per game than last summer, and shooting 49.7 percent from the field, which is about a 12 percent jump over 2005. She also averages 4.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.8 steals and shoots 76 percent at the foul line -- all while averaging almost three minutes less than last summer.

And though Beard followed Taurasi as the second overall pick in the 2004 WNBA draft, she also accomplished something Taurasi hasn't: Beard has led her team to the playoffs -- twice.

Despite Beard getting ejected in the second quarter after drawing two technical fouls for arguing a charging call, Washington clinched its second playoff berth in three seasons with a win over Charlotte Sunday. All four spots in the East are now spoken for. Though Washington -- which has six games left, including tough road games at Seattle and Sacramento and home dates with Los Angeles and Detroit -- will likely finish fourth and end up facing Connecticut in the first round of the playoffs, the Mystics are a team no one would choose to face in the postseason.

Alana Beard
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesAlana Beard has been the Mystics' top scorer in 16 of the 26 games she has played this season.

That, of course, is because of Beard, who continues to baffle defenses even though everybody's coming after her. She has helped Washington win six of its last nine games and rack up an 11-7 conference record. Beard is also the catalyst behind the Mystics' No. 1 ranking in field-goal percentage (.460) and No. 3 rankings in scoring (80.07 ppg) and steals per game (9.15).

Still, the best part about Beard's game is her versatility. She's hardly the best 3-point shooter in the league, but she can knock it down from downtown. She's a slasher who makes you pay at the free-throw line. As her field-goal percentage and solid assists-per-game average indicates, she doesn't force shots. And her abilities on the glass help give the Mystics a perimeter that can rebound.

"I think she's one of the new breed that's sweeping the WNBA, great athlete and smart," Sacramento coach John Whisenant said on the Mystics' Web site earlier this season. "I'd like to have her on my team because of her [ability] to cause havoc in the defensive end."

Though Beard's work ethic and athleticism sometimes make her job look easy on the court, the journey this season has been anything but. Some could argue that the Mystics started out at a disadvantage simply because they were adjusting to a new point guard -- even one as talented as D.C. native Nikki Teasley -- after trading away Temeka Johnson, last season's rookie of the year. At the very least, it put tremendous pressure on Beard early on to help carry the load as Teasley made the transition.

Still, the Mystics' season was promising from the start, after they jumped to a 7-3 record. But then they lost five of their next six, and have hovered around .500 since, falling below the mark as recently as July 25 before improving to 15-13 Sunday.

Part of the struggles can be traced to injuries to both DeLisha Milton-Jones and Beard. Milton-Jones, an eight-year veteran, was lost for 11 games after she suffered a sprained MCL on June 17. Beard, who increased her attempts per game and offensive aggressiveness during Milton-Jones' absence, then suffered an ankle injury on July 1, causing her to miss two games and play two more in obvious pain heading into the All-Star break.

Beard -- who (no surprise here) fans passed over as an All-Star starter -- wasn't even sure she would play in the midseason classic. But after Connecticut's Nykesha Sales bowed out with an injury, Beard, who East All-Star coach Mike Thibault had selected as a reserve, was "promoted" to an All-Star starter and finished the July 12 game with six points on 3-for-6 shooting in 15 minutes.

Since the All-Star break, however, the Mystics are 5-3, and got another boost on July 19 when Milton-Jones returned. And when Beard's game was cut short Sunday by the ejection, Milton-Jones stepped up, scoring a career-high 26 points. She was one of three players in double-digits.

"We want to find our niche and jell even more into the playoffs," said center Chasity Melvin, who had 12 points in Sunday's win. "We're getting everybody back healthy. We're trying to find the same chemistry we had when we started the season."

And that's good news for Beard and the Mystics, whether the spotlight finds them or not.

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.

Nancy Lieberman

Basketball analyst / Writer
Nancy Lieberman, one of the most recognized individuals in women's basketball, is a men's and women's basketball analyst for ESPN. She works on ESPN and ESPN2's coverage of men's and women's college basketball, plus the WNBA and writes for ESPN.com.