Mystics within half game of East lead

Monique Currie is averaging 14.8 ppg for the Mystics, winners of four straight. Barry Gossage/Getty Images

The Washington Mystics have never been one of those franchises for which, one way or another, everything seems to work out. To the contrary, in all kinds of ways, things usually haven't worked.

Certainly, the coaching carousel that, unfortunately, came to define the Mystics had quite a lot to do with their misfortune. But even in those brief periods of relative stability -- and the key word when you're talking about the Mystics really was "relative" -- there were still many dark clouds.

Well, maybe it's time for some truly blue skies for the Mystics. It might seem unlikely, considering Alana Beard, the team's leading scorer the previous five years, is out this season after ankle surgery. But perhaps 2010 will be the summer when everything that can go wrong for the Mystics … actually doesn't.

We don't want to speak too soon, of course, but Washington is now 12-5, nearly neck-and-neck with Atlanta atop the kill-or-be-killed Eastern Conference. The Mystics have won four games in a row and are 8-2 in their last 10.

They enter a much-needed break after six games -- five of them victories -- in a 10-day span. Washington doesn't play again until July 15 at New York. Along with Beard's absence, rookie Jacinta Monroe suffered a left-hand fracture June 19 that's expected to keep her out until at least August. So for a team with nine active players, an extended period to rest is very important.

"It couldn't come at a better time," coach Julie Plank said after the Mystics beat Tulsa 69-54 on Saturday. "Everybody is doing their part. We lost a lot with Alana Beard, but Katie Smith has done a great job with leadership. And I really like our all-around play."

Stepping into a starring role has been Crystal Langhorne. Last year's most improved player in the WNBA, she is playing well enough -- averaging 17.0 points and 9.8 rebounds -- to be in the MVP discussion at the midway point of her third season.

"From my rookie to second year, I worked on my shooting a lot," said Langhorne, who has displayed the increased range she knew she'd need to develop as a 6-foot-2 player used to camping on the low block in college at Maryland. "I was too small to just post up all day in this league."

Langhorne was disappointed after averaging just 4.8 points as a rookie in 2008. Then she went overseas to play in Lithuania.

"And my coach there said: 'Just shoot it! If you miss it, we'll rebound it!'" Langhorne said. "And I started to become more comfortable with it, and a lot of other things about my game improved because of that."

Former Duke teammates Monique Currie (14.8) and Lindsey Harding (13.2) are both averaging in double figures in scoring for the Mystics.

"I really worked on shooting the ball coming into this season," Currie said. "But mostly for me, it's been about being confident and consistent."

Harding, who knows Currie's game as well as anyone, said, "Her confidence level is high. I think she felt last year, she had to prove herself more. This year, she knows she's always one of our go-to players."

Smith, who turned 36 in June, remains such a valuable presence on court that she's averaging 32 minutes a game. The other two members of "That '70s Club" for the Mystics -- post players Chasity Melvin and Nakia Sanford, born a week apart in May 1976 -- bring veteran smarts and don't mind ceding the spotlight to a youngster like Langhorne.

Melvin and Sanford have traveled the world to play basketball, but neither has won a WNBA title. Smith has won two -- in 2006 and 2008 with Detroit. When the Shock moved to Tulsa, the free agent Smith moved to Washington.

Smith will always be thought of as one of women's hoops' most consistent scorers, but her commitment to being a complete player is really what should be her legacy. It's what helped make Detroit so successful and what she has brought to the Mystics.

There are still games when Smith can fill up the basket. She did it last week against Indiana (21 points) and Phoenix (25). Then Saturday, Smith had just six points but played 34 minutes and was a big part of making Tulsa's offense even more anemic than usual.

"I like being able to compete, and every night is a little different," Smith said. "I like knowing that if we come out and play hard, we can beat teams. That's why you're out here: to win ballgames."

Here's the really interesting part of that: that Smith not only doesn't mind having a different role depending on who the opponent is and how the game's going, but that she actually enjoys that.

If you were trying to distill Smith's success down to its most basic component, it would be that trait: that she can and will do whatever is most needed by her team every game. Smith is the hoops equivalent of the studio musician who's proficient on five different instruments and doesn't mind which one you ask her to play, or for how long.

Smith is a particularly good role model for the younger Mystics players, especially someone like the exquisitely talented Marissa Coleman. Langhorne's former Terps sidekick, Coleman has struggled uncharacteristically with her scoring this season, but has been figuring out how much she can still do for the Mystics even if her shot isn't falling. Take it from Smith: There might not be any more important lesson for a gifted player to learn.

"You always have to be ready to score, but you don't always know what the game's going to call for or how you're going to have to score," Smith said. "The other things are more easy to control. You can always commit to running the offense, setting good picks, guarding your man. Those are huge parts of the game. And the bottom line for me is always just finding a way to win."

Alas, the Mystics historically have been more adept at finding ways to lose. Only twice in the franchise's previous 12 seasons has Washington finished with a winning record: 17-15 in 2002 and 18-16 in 2006. Despite making the playoffs last season, the Mystics were only 16-18.

"Last year, we were really close, but we still couldn't close out games," Harding said. "But that's changed. When we played Indiana at home [June 29] and we were able to hold off a great team and close them out, that meant a lot. We already knew we could compete, but it gave us more confidence."

The Fever beat the Mystics in the Eastern Conference semifinals 2-0 last season. The only time Washington has won a playoff series was in 2002, when they defeated Charlotte 2-0 before losing in the East finals to New York, 2-1.

So, again, with a 12-5 Mystics team that seems to be emerging as a possible threat to win the Eastern Conference for the first time, surely some Washington fans are saying …

"OK, shut up about it already! Do you want to hex us? Have we not had enough bad mojo? You know darn good and well that our rabbit mascot is named 'Lucky' only in an ironic sense. Leave us alone!"

However, maybe the past is finally just the past for the Mystics. Plank and general manager Angela Taylor, in their second season working together in Washington, were expecting a Beard-led team to really jell this year. But it's happening pretty well even without Beard.

"Everyone's making the most of their opportunities," Harding said. "This is the best start I've had in my WNBA career. I don't know how many people thought we'd be in this position without Alana, but we have a lot of pieces to beat people."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.