Atlanta Dream coach Michael Cooper is successfully recovering from cancer surgery three weeks ago, but now has his hands full getting his team back on a winning track.
Cooper, 58, lost 10 pounds after surgery to remove tongue cancer. The only other visible indicator of what he's been through is the long surgical scar on the left side of his neck. He said he is getting better every day.
"I'm feeling pretty good," Cooper said before Friday's game against the Los Angeles Sparks. "Obviously I've got to do what the doctor says and take my time. But it feels good to be back in the mix. It doesn't feel good to be losing, so we've got to get things organized."
After coaching the East team in the WNBA All-Star game, Cooper announced his cancer diagnosis. He had surgery July 24 and was expected to make a full recovery, as the cancer was detected early. But of the six games he missed afterwards, the Dream lost four. Cooper returned in time for the team's West coast road trip, where Atlanta lost three more games. They had already clinched a playoff spot, but now their record is 17-13.
The longtime coach pointed to one specific lapse as the root of the problem.
"Defense - that's the first and foremost problem, when you don't play defense," Cooper said. "Prior to my illness, we were a good defensive team, and then a lot of games came upon us that didn't allow us to practice, and I think that has a little to do with it. But when you don't take ownership on defense and allow big leads, it's going to cause some problems."
"Then, to add fuel to the fire, we've been trying to get it done only on the offensive end. Pat Riley used to say 'no rebounds, no ring.' We've been the best rebounding team in the league, and we've got to get back to that."
All-Star forward Angel McCoughtry, who has played all five of her years in the league with the Dream, said a late-season lull has become the norm for them.
"It's kind of weird because every year we do this at this time," she said. "But we're going to get back on track."
McCoughtry said they haven't been playing like themselves since the All-Star break.
"We have to play tougher, because teams are playing us so hard and we're not matching the intensity," she said. "We have to do a better job of getting ready for games."
Atlanta ends their road trip in Chicago Sunday, where they play the Sky, and then head home for games Wednesday and Friday. They end the regular season Aug. 17, in Connecticut to play the Sun.