While the Washington Mystics have plenty of momentum heading into the playoffs, the Atlanta Dream hope the postseason will provide the spark they need to end a rough stretch and avoid an early exit.
Making their first playoff appearance in three years, the Mystics visit the Dream for Game 1 of this best-of-three Eastern Conference semifinal series Thursday night.
With five wins in its last seven games, including victories in the final three, Washington finished 17-17 to return to the playoffs for the first time since getting swept by Atlanta in the 2010 East semifinals.
"We definitely need that momentum to go into the playoffs,'' veteran guard Ivory Latta said. "At the same time, when you go into the playoffs, it's 0-0.''
Though the Mystics have not won a playoff game since 2004, they have reason to be excited and even optimistic against a Dream squad that's making a fifth consecutive postseason appearance.
Atlanta also went 17-17 this season, but it started 10-1 before losing 16 of 23, including its final four. The Dream earned the second seed in the East by taking three of five from the Mystics this season. However, Washington won the last two meetings, the most recent by an 85-80 score at Atlanta on Aug. 28.
"We've just got to go down there, stay poised, stay focused and be ready,'' said Latta, who played for Atlanta during its first two seasons as a franchise in 2008 and '09.
Though the Dream have struggled of late, they went 13-4 at home and are led by Angel McCoughtry, the WNBA leader with 21.5 points per game.
The versatile McCoughtry averaged 22.0 points in three home games against the Mystics this year but totaled 32 in the two at Washington.
While McCoughtry is the obvious focal point of Atlanta's offense, first-year Washington coach Mike Thibault wants his players to understand she is not the Dream's only threat.
"I think you make her work for everything she does and make her catches tough," he told the Mystics' official website. "We've held her a little below her average, we've made her have to be a passer.
"But as much as you have to stop Angel, they have enough other weapons. It's not a one-man game, it just seems like it sometimes."
Dream center Erika de Souza, who averaged 9.9 rebounds on the season, totaled 26 in the last two against Washington.
Mystics rookie guard Tayler Hill averaged 13.0 points in her last seven contests - well above her season mark of 6.5.
"I think that I'm adjusting and the game has sort of slowed down for me,'' said Hill, the fourth overall pick in the draft. "I don't feel rushed, I don't feel frantic out there. It's just starting to come to me.''
She scored 25 while going 5 of 9 from the floor and 12 of 12 from the free-throw line in the two victories over Atlanta.