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Angel McCoughtry has been in the WNBA for only three years, but when it comes to putting her team on her back and leading them somewhere, she's had more than her share of experience.
The Atlanta Dream reached the WNBA Finals last fall, but a 2-7 start in 2011 was not going to cut it. Now, led by the lithe forward, the Dream are one game out of playoff position in the competitive Eastern Conference. Atlanta was on a roll with five straight victories before Sunday's loss at Connecticut.
"That's the game of basketball, you just have to keep playing," McCoughtry, 24, said. "You play to live another day and then you play to live another. You just keep going."
McCoughtry, a Baltimore native, is playing some of the best basketball of her young career during this stretch, moving herself into contention for the league's MVP award. McCoughtry is the second-leading scorer in the WNBA, averaging 19.8 points a game in 26.8 minutes on the floor.
She's been the Eastern Conference Player of the Week two weeks straight. McCoughtry opened last week with a 37-point effort against Tulsa. Then she put up 36 points in the losing effort on Sunday, the third time in five games that she'd score at least 30 against the Sun. She scored those 36 points coming off the bench because she wasn't feeling well before the game.
Still, McCoughtry said she would have traded a big scoring night for a win.
"If my numbers can go down and we win, I'm excited," McCoughtry said. "Putting up these numbers doesn't mean a thing if we don't get the W."
But, in fact, the Dream have been picking up plenty of W's of late. And with Indiana, New York and Connecticut playing well, and Chicago hanging in the playoff picture, Atlanta is going to have to continue to win to rally for a postseason berth.
"The conference is like it was last year, it's always competitive," McCoughtry said. "You have to play well every night. [Being in the WNBA Finals] last year is motivating for us. We know what it takes to get there. We didn't want to start the season like we did, but I think we all knew we had time."
Can't coast in East
While Atlanta stages its rally, it faces a lot of competition in the Eastern Conference, where four of the six teams have won at least six of their past 10 games.
Out West, talent-rich Minnesota is on a six-game winning streak, including Sunday night's big 70-69 win over second-place San Antonio on the road.
No spark in L.A.
Things aren't going well in Los Angeles, with Candace Parker recovering from a knee injury and new head coach Joe Bryant looking for winning combinations. The Sparks have lost five of six games to fall into fifth place in the West.
Could it be an age issue? The teams that are leading in the West -- Minnesota and San Antonio -- are getting energy boosts from exciting young players.
The Sparks are experienced, but with so many players on the downsides of their careers (Tina Thompson, DeLisha Milton-Jones, Ticha Penicheiro), an energy boost is looking tough to muster.