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Mystics ride momentum into playoffs

The Mystics' ability to beat the Dream might depend on how they defend Angel McCoughtry. Chuck Myers/MCT via Getty Images

It was three years ago -- although it might seem like a lifetime to Mystics fans -- that Washington and Atlanta met in the first round of the WNBA playoffs.

The Mystics had finished first in the Eastern Conference for the first time in 2010, while the Dream were fourth. But Atlanta swept Washington 2-0, Mystics coach Julie Plank and general manager Angela Taylor both departed (with some acrimony) after the season, and Washington won a combined 11 games over the next two seasons under coach/GM Trudi Lacey.

OK, just try to put that all out of your minds, Mystics fans. This season was a fresh start under veteran coach Mike Thibault. Washington is back in the postseason, and faces an Atlanta team that had the same 17-17 record as the Mystics.

The Dream are in the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, thanks to an MVP-caliber season from Angel McCoughtry, solid play inside from Erika de Souza and a supporting cast of players who've accepted their roles.

But the up-and-down nature of the Dream -- who've had four different four-game losing streaks -- is in part because Atlanta has really struggled away from home. At 4-13, they have the worst road record of any of the eight playoff teams this season.

Which is why it's fortunate for the Dream that they have home-court advantage in this series. That's because they had a 3-2 record over the Mystics in the regular season, although Washington won the last two meetings.

Key to the series

Washington's defense: It's not just about trying to slow McCoughtry, which no team has been able to do consistently. She led the league in scoring this season at 21.5 PPG. Still, Washington will try to make things difficult for her. Ivory Latta, Monique Currie, Matee Ajavon and Tayler Hill all can help in regard to cutting off penetration. But Washington also will need to clog up the middle as much as possible with Kia Vaughn and Crystal Langhorne.

Bottom line

Based on how both teams did over the last couple of weeks of the regular season, the Mystics appear to be favored. They are 8-4 since Aug. 8, when they got one of the bigger confidence-building victories of their season: 79-75 over Minnesota. Meanwhile, the Dream were 4-8 in their last 12 games. But we've seen Atlanta come into the postseason seemingly not playing that well, only to turn it on during the playoffs. Still, Washington does seem to be playing a little more consistently now.

Who wins?

Mechelle Voepel: Mystics in three games. The Mystics are 1-6 in the postseason during their tortured history, with that win coming in the 2002 first round over a team that no longer exists, Charlotte. So, yeah, it has been forever. But Thibault has worked hard on changing the culture in D.C., and the Mystics made obvious progress with that this season.

Michelle Smith: Mystics in three games. The Dream have lost too much momentum from their strong start. Losing four in a row to finish doesn't bode well.

EAST: (2) ATLANTA DREAM VS. (3) WASHINGTON MYSTICS

Atlanta had the upper hand in the teams' first three meetings this season, starting 3-0 against Washington. But the Mystics won the last two matchups, including an 85-80 victory in overtime on the road on Aug. 28. Atlanta's Angel McCoughtry, the league's scoring champion at 21.5 PPG, nearly matched it in the series, never scoring fewer than 15 points and averaging 19.6 PPG against Washington.