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‘Positive’ McCoughtry carries Dream higher

The Dream are the biggest early surprise in the WNBA. The reason why, coach Michael Cooper says, is simple — a wiser Angel McCoughtry.

McCoughtry scored 22 points, lifting the first-place Dream to their fourth consecutive victory 85-76 over the Indiana Fever on Sunday at Philips Arena.

Dream point guard Layshia Clarendon scored 17, Tiffany Hayes added 13 points, and Sancho Lyttle had 12, including multiple big jumpers in the second half to help stave off a challenge from veteran Tamika Catchings and the Fever.

The Dream (5-1) are off to their best start since 2013, when they began 10-1 and went on to reach the WNBA Finals. Atlanta is in sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference. Not bad for a team picked 11th in the 12-team WNBA in preseason ratings. Neither Cooper nor McCoughtry shared the tempered expectations.

“We’re Atlanta. We’re one of the best teams,” said McCoughtry, who has taken an increased leadership role in her eighth season.

McCoughtry said she’s become a more positive player, which in turn has made her a better leader.

“The one thing that I’ve learned in my career is positivity, whether we win over lose,” she said. “I wasn’t a positive player earlier in my career but now I’m trying to enforce positivity, whether we win or lose. If you have positivity, nothing can get you down. That is a true heart of a champion.

Cooper said McCoughtry remains one of the best players in the league, but the difference this year is her ability to make her teammates better.

“When your star player does that, it not only gives them confidence, but it makes it better for the whole team, because she won’t have to carry that burden on her own,” Cooper said. “When you are superstar later in your career, you can do one of two things: you can get us to the top or take us over. You can’t do both, and I think [McCoughtry] realizes that, so she’s helping us be where we want to be and ultimately playing for a championship.”

The Dream had trailed at halftime in each of their first five games, but started fast Sunday against the Fever, who are responsible for Atlanta’s only loss of the season. Hayes used a quick, crossover dribble to get the rim for basket, part of a 10-2 opening run.

McCoughtry scored five straight points, including a steal and breakaway layup during a second-quarter run that had the Dream up 18. Indiana closed the first half with an 8-0 run, capped by a Catchings 3-pointer at the buzzer that sent the Fever into the locker room down 43-33.

Indiana continued to cut into Dream lead in the second half, with Catchings scoring nine of her 16 points. The 16-year veteran, who is in her final season, brought the Fever within 49-48 on a spinning post move midway through the third quarter. With the basket, she became on the second player in WNBA history to reach 7,000 points for her career. Tina Thompson, the WNBA’s career leader, is the other player with 7,000 points.

“While it’s cool — no, it’s great — but it’s still one of those moments where we should have won, so I’m looking at the game and moreso than looking at everything else,” Catchings said.

Atlanta got a little scare late in the third quarter, when Hayes went down, clutching her knee after colliding with Catchings. Hayes returned in the fourth quarter, though, and scored a key bucket on an offensive rebound that put the Dream up 71-66 to play. Hayes said after the game that she was fine.