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Monday, June 25, 2001
Mystics still a mystery

By Nancy Lieberman-Cline
Special to ESPN.com

Editor's Note: ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman-Cline, a Hall of Famer and former WNBA coach/player, will preview the top WNBA games each week for ESPN.com.

Minnesota at Washington
Monday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Mystics, who are a disappointing 2-7 and have lost six in a row, have underachieved. They had all their starters coming back this season, and people were thinking they could vie with New York for the Eastern Conference championship. Tom Maher is a tremendous coach who has proven himself at the international level. Maybe the players are taking awhile to adapt to his system. Whatever the reason for the Mystics' troubles, things are not going well in Washington.

Because the Mystics lead the league in attendance and have incredible fans, the team should be putting a better product on the floor. Chamique Holdsclaw came ready to play and is averaging a double-double a game. But Nikki McCray may not be playing her best basketball. Although I thought Murriel Page was ready to ascend to an All-Star level, she has played far from that this season.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Sandy Brondello, Miami
Forget her 0-for-10 shooting performance against Cleveland on Sunday night. I like everything about Brondello, one of the most professional people I have ever encountered. She is a tremendous worker and a no-doubt All-Star. I have never seen a finer shooter than Brondello -- in the clutch or in practice.

She can hit the runner. And for someone who is only 5-foot-7, she is so savvy in drawing contact. She can shoot off either foot, which a lot of players can't do. She can handle the ball, come off screens, and play either guard spots. Although she doesn't love to play defense, she can play it.

Brondello entered the league known as a two-point shooter, but she has expanded her game to three-point range. She is a gamer and one of the smartest players I have been around. She is very much like Michele Timms, coaching as the game is unfolding. When I coached her in Detroit, I would have her in the huddle with me, and she would make informative suggestions. She has a great calm and sense about her.

When Timms entered the league, no one really knew about the other Australian players. Everyone knew Timms, with her hair, from her Olympics. But Brondello was a fourth-round draft pick (34th overall) in the 1998 WNBA draft and probably the biggest steal in league history. She quickly proved she was the best Australian player.
-- Nancy Lieberman-Cline

Maybe losing point guard Andrea Nagy, who was traded to New York, has hurt because she seemed to fit in well with the Mystics' system a year ago. Annie Burgess is now the starter and is a good player, but I thought she would make a solid backup. Maher, however, seems to have a comfortability with Burgess.

The Mystics still have great talent, but they are at a crossroads. They are at the point in the season where they need a six-game winning streak. They can't afford to go .500 the rest of the way because they may miss the playoffs.

Minnesota is not really a playoff-caliber team. Brian Alger is a demanding coach whose physical practices are almost like going to war and not having any armor. It takes players awhile to learn his system. He has gone away a bit from his philosophy of the first two years, where he used a five-man motion offense where everyone handles the ball and players are more interchangeable. It looks like he has gone to a traditional post, with Val Whiting-Raymond, perhaps their best defensive post player.

The Lynx have made several trades, making it hard for the players to get a feel for what Alger really wants. The team traded players like Keitha Dickerson, Sonya Tate, Kristin Folkl and Grace Dailey. He has the premier best small forward in the game in Katie Smith, who does not have a weakness in her game. But at some point, Alger needs to pick a team and live with it. Teams win with veterans, not rookies, and he has four rookies on his roster, including Svetlana Abrosimova, who was just activated.

Minnesota misses the explosiveness of Betty Lennox, who is out with a strained hip. When Lennox plays and Smith has an off night, Lennox can produce big numbers. But with Lennox out, the Lynx have problemns. was playing, if Smith had an off night, Lennox could come up with big numbers. But with her out, the Lynx has problems. Still, if Smith has a great scoring night, the Lynx can win. If not, they will struggle.

There is a possibility Smith will guard Holdsclaw. She is probably as good a perimeter defender as the Lynx have. She can be physical enough with Chamique to keep her away from the basket.

Washington can't back down from the Lynx, who play very physical defense and try to make it a halfcourt game. The Lynx will run when they have the numbers but are contend to grind it out in the halfcourt. Minnesota also gets some of the best help-side defense in the league. The Mystics need to reverse the ball quickly, have patience and have someone who can control the tempo to come away with a victory.

Portland at Cleveland
Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET
Portland has done a fantastic job, and much of that has to do with Jackie Stiles, who has exceeded expectations. In recent years few rookies have entered the league and started successfully. Not Lynn Pride. Not Tamicha Jackson. Not Kelly or Coco Miller. Holdsclaw had a decent first year. Stiles, however, must think the WNBA is her own personal Final Four. In a pressure situation she has played fantastic, averaging 13.6 points a game. She is doing whatever coach Linda Hargrove needs her to do.

The Fire has a nice blend and a solid starting five. The trade for Tamicha Jackson has played out well. Maybe Hargrove has harnessed her, helping Jackson see the bigger picture of making people around her better. The Fire has a nice veteran in Sophia Witherspoon, the team's leading scorer. She is a smart player who can read defenses and stay away from her liabilities. Sylvia Crawley is playing well. Being an assistant coach for her alma mater, North Carolina, has helped her. The mental game catches up with the physical, and she is trying to be a factor in the league.

Kristin Folkl is averaging 8.4 rebounds and only 5.4 points. She has found a system where she doesn't need to be the offensive focal point. She just needs to set screens, be physical on defense and go to the boards where she can be the antithesis of Crawley, who is a more finesse player.

Hargrove has done a nice coaching job. A 6-3 record in the Western Conference is a step up following an expansion season. But Cleveland will be a tough test for the Fire on the road. The Rockers are 5-0 at home and have the best defensive team in the league. They don't turn the ball or don't allow offensive rebounds. Every shot is contested.

If the Fire can score in the halfcourt, they will have earned it. If Portland can run, maybe the Fire can catch the Rockers before they set up their defense. But that's easier said than done. Just ask Miami coach Ron Rothstein, whose Sol lost to the Rockers 54-35.

Houston at Sacramento
Thursday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Houston has to be the surprise of the league. Everybody knew New York would be good and Cleveland had potential. But whoever thought Houston would be 8-1 after playing the Los Angeles Sparks twice? I give coach Van Chancellor and Tina Thompson, Janeth Arcain and the rest of the role players a lot of credit.

Once again Chancellor has gotten the Comets to buy into his philosophy. The Comets' defense has always been underrated, overshadowed by their flamboyant offense. With Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes to go with Thompson and Arcain, the Comets had four of the world's best players. Now they only have two, who are still better than many of the league's players.

The Comets have always been able to rally around tragedy and controversy, whether it was Swoopes and Cooper not getting along, the death of Kim Perrot, or Tropical Storm Allison. They have used it to their advantage to bond as a team. Chemistry is a big part of their success.

Now the Comets play the Monarchs, whom they beat at home over the weekend. Sacramento is not playing good basketball. Maybe it's because most of their players weren't around during training camp, making it tough for coach Sonny Allen to develop any chemistry. Ruthie Bolton had her knee scoped. Edna Campbell was acquired from Seattle. Ticha Penicheiro sprained her ankle in Poland and missed the first seven games. Yolanda Griffith didn't join the team until June 4, before the Monarchs' second regular-season game in New York.

The Monarchs started out well, and Campbell has played great basketball. But she was filling in at the point for Penicheiro. Few players are better at leading their team than Penicheiro. I don't know if Griffith is tired from the Olympics and playing in Europe. But she is not playing as well as or as consistent as she did a year ago. The Monarchs need Griffith like one of the top players in the world.

Allen, an offensive coach, wants to drop one more bomb than the other team. If the Comets are able to turn the Monarchs into a halfcourt team, they will take away Sacramento's great athletes -- Griffith, Bolton and Tangela Smith. The Monarchs prefer the transition game, but the Comets won't allow it to happen. With Tiffani Johnson and Thompson banging the offensive boards, the Comets will also try to stifle the break and slow down Penicheiro, who is not yet 100 percent. Houston's spacing is impeccable. And Arcain on the outside and Thompson on the inside are a tough combination.

The Comets held Sacramento to 56 points, the Monarchs' lowest output of the season. Sacramento will need to manufacture points, control the boards and get some fast breaks, getting a balance of halfcourt points, garbage points, defensive points and second-chance points. After the Monarchs' loss in Houston, they needed an overtime period to put away Charlotte, the team with the league's worst record. That shouldn't have sent Sacramento home with much confidence. It was the Monarchs' third road game in four days, but that's part of the WNBA.