ATLANTA -- This was Angel McCoughtry's big comeback year, the payoff after sitting out the 2017 WNBA season for needed rest.
She was an All-Star in July, and talked about how much she wanted a championship ring. And with the Dream having won 10 of their past 11 games going into an Aug. 7 contest with Las Vegas, there was reason for optimism.
Then a knee injury ended McCoughtry's season. As the Dream face the Mystics in the WNBA semifinals, Atlanta's star player -- the No. 1 draft pick in 2009 and face of the franchise -- isn't on the court.
"This wasn't supposed to happen this year," McCoughtry said. "It was awful timing."
With the Aces leading 94-93 with 5½ minutes left in that Aug. 7 game, Atlanta's Alex Bentley launched a 3-pointer that missed. As McCoughtry pursued the rebound in the lane, Las Vegas' Moriah Jefferson dove for the ball and instead crashed into McCoughtry's left knee.
Anyone who has watched McCoughtry going back to her college days at Louisville sensed something was wrong because she had to be helped off the court. We've rarely ever seen that.
The Dream ended up winning 109-100, and McCoughtry actually was optimistic.
"With ACL injuries, they always say there's a 'pop,'" McCoughtry said. "I didn't hear or feel a pop. I thought, 'Whew, I hyperextended my knee really bad. I've got a bad sprain.' I thought I'd be out for two weeks and come back for playoffs."
Then she got the news from the doctor the next day: a torn anterior cruciate ligament, torn medial collateral ligament and a bone bruise.
"And I just busted out in tears and said, 'There's no way, I don't believe you,'" McCoughtry said. "I wanted to go for a second opinion."
She did, but the results were the same. The enormity of it was hard to take. Earlier in the year, she'd signed an extension with the Dream, whom she believed were capable of winning it all. She also had a contract with UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia for the winter. And she hoped to play for the United States in the FIBA World Cup in September.
"It took me about a week of depression," McCoughtry said, "before I said, 'What's that going to do? It's not helping this team. Shake it off and start to build yourself up to come back.'"
That's what she has done: concentrate on being a positive voice on the bench and encouraging her teammates. They were still able to close out the regular season with wins in four of five games without McCoughtry and got the No. 2 seed. And as difficult as it was for Nicki Collen in her first year as Atlanta's coach to lose a player of such magnitude, she rallied the Dream's confidence while also comforting McCoughtry.
"I told Angel that we're programmed as coaches to be problem-solvers," Collen said. "You have to find the next solution. But you don't discount what she means to this team and how important she's been. She was a big part in us turning the corner this season.
"We've tried to keep her involved in practice and in the locker room. It doesn't make it easier. I wish I had her, but injuries are part of the game."
McCoughtry averaged 16.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists for Atlanta, which leads Washington 2-1 in the semifinals and can clinch a spot in the WNBA Finals with a win in Game 4 Sunday (ESPN2, 3 p.m. ET). That kind of production was a lot to lose, but there's also the experience factor: She has played in the Finals three times and knows the necessity of going to another level at playoff time. That's what she has tried to convey to the younger Dream players.
"It's like, 'Get after it! Go at them! Play like you want to win a championship,'" McCoughtry said.
"The hardest part is you can't make up for your overseas contract, that kind of money. That is kind of devastating." Angel McCoughtry, on how a torn ACL impacts her income
Her teammates credit McCoughtry for staying upbeat. But she said she realized the only productive way to approach the injury was to try to find good things in a bad situation.
"I'll be here in the United States for Halloween, for Thanksgiving, for Christmas with my family," she said. "The Super Bowl is here in Atlanta [in February 2019]. That will be fun. I'll stay here and do some camps, work in the community, help out the Dream.
"The hardest part is you can't make up for your overseas contract, that kind of money. That is kind of devastating. But it's forcing me to figure some things out now. What am I going to do after basketball? Because you think about it while you're playing, but you probably don't think about it enough. Now I really do need to figure it out. That is the new challenge I'm looking forward to in life, and I'm going to embrace that."
McCoughtry owns an ice cream shop in Atlanta, and she'll spend a little more time there. But her parents, who also live in Atlanta, are primarily responsible for running it. She is interested in other business opportunities, but also in doing more charity work through her foundation, McCoughtry's Mission, specifically involving refurbishing basketball courts in other countries.
McCoughtry said she was visiting Panama, looking into some real estate there, when she noticed a rundown basketball court that was in such bad shape, kids couldn't play on it.
"We take it for granted here, because there are decent basketball courts everywhere," she said. "But in some places, they really don't have that."
McCoughtry's foundation will do court revitalization in Panama and the Virgin Islands, and she plans to conduct basketball clinics there, too.
And, of course, she'll be working hard to rehab her knee. She expects to have surgery soon, and then will tackle that process.
"I'm fortunate, I've never had to rehab anything major before," McCoughtry said. "Maybe an ankle sprain or small sprain of my knee. My dad says we have good genes, and he thinks I'll come back in five months. We'll see. I'll give it everything I've got."