Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash

The Lakers are right on schedule, but is it too late?

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Picture this: Steve Nash dribbles up court, surveying the floor. As he crosses half court, he maneuvers towards the three point line. Once there, Dwight Howard comes and sets a pick and rolls hard to the basket but doesn’t get the ball. Nash probes the defense, dribbling into the paint and underneath the hoop, spotting Kobe Bryant open on the wing. Kobe raises to shoot a jumper but instead rifles a pass to a wide open Howard under the hoop who catches the pass for a dunk.

Or picture this: Kobe is hounding the opposing point guard full court. Before the ball handler gets to the timeline, he’s been turned multiple times, his pattern up the floor an inefficient zig-zag. With the shot clock winding down, the ball goes to the wing. That player, feeling pressure from Metta World Peace, tries to drive and get a shot off before the help arrives. But Howard swoops in, alters the shot, and then secures the rebound.

Or this: Nash is pushing the ball up court, looking to improvise. Defenders are retreating and recovering to the paint while still trying to find their men in semi-transition. On one wing is Kobe. On the other is Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark. Howard is trailing the action but running well, looking for the ball should the action slow. Nash veers left towards Kobe, but instead fires a pass to Clark. As a defender chases the ball, Clark instantly passes to Jamison in the corner who shoots, and sinks, an uncontested three pointer.

Actually, you don’t have to just picture them — these are sequences from the last three Lakers’ games. It’s the middle of January and they’re finally starting to get it. This is good news, right?

Before the season started, this was the timeline many thought the Lakers would be operating on. With a team of players turned over by half — including some big name acquisitions — they’d need time to find their collective stride. With Howard still recovering from his back surgery, the expectations were that the team would start somewhat slowly. Give them time to heal, to jell, to build up that familiarity that all teams need to reach their peak. Once that happened, they’d start to string together good performances and become a terror that teams would want to avoid.

The Lakers are getting closer to being that team. The defense is improving. The offense, though efficient for the entire season, is staring to show more fluidity. Players are communicating better and seem to be on the same page. And while there are still hurdles to clear — What to do with Pau Gasol? How to mix their lineups effectively? Do they sure up their bench?  — the list of positives with this team is finally starting to outweigh the negatives. They are making progress. Lots of it.

The only problem is the hole they’ve dug themselves in the process of getting to this point. The moral victories are piling up, but the Lakers need real victories to sustain them. They currently sit 5 games below .500 with 17 wins and 22 losses. They’re the 11th seed in the West with only a half a season left to play. So as much as D’Antoni would love to hit the reset button on this season, the Lakers’ season did not, in fact, start this past Sunday.

The time to turn their season around was weeks ago, but is only starting to happen now. Do the Lakers have enough time left?

Over the past 4 seasons, the 8th seed in the Western Conference has averaged 48 wins. For the Lakers to get to that mark, they would need to close with the season with a 31-12 push. Possible? Yes. Plausible? The friendliest response would say maybe. A neutral observer would say it’s pretty unlikely.

There is a formula for the Lakers to reach their goal of making the post-season. If they can get above the .500 mark by the all-star break they’d put themselves in position to make one last push to sneak in as the 8th seed. In Phil Jackson’s last year with the team, the Lakers came out of the all-star break winning 19 of 20 games before injuries saw them sputter into the playoffs. Is this team capable of making that type of push from the middle of February into March?

The way the team is playing now does make it seem anything is possible. If observed in a vacuum, their improvement on offense and recommitment to defense is the foundation of a team that can rattle off a bunch of wins in a short amount of time. Of course, this season isn’t taking place in a vacuum.

Funny how things work. The Lakers are starting to play well, right on the schedule we thought they would. But because of how bad they were to start the year, it may still be too late.

After two years off court, Joel Embiid says he “probably” will have minutes restrictions

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 30: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers takes a shot from the bench prior to the game against the Utah Jazz on October 30, 2015 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Joel Embiid could be the best player on the Philadelphia 76ers in a couple of years — many scouts had him the highest rated of all the first-round draft picks the Sixers have had in recent seasons.

But after two foot surgeries and two seasons sitting on the sidelines, we don’t know how good Embiid can be. We should find out starting in October when Embiid is part of the Sixers training camp. Embiid says he feels 100 percent, but he expects there will be restrictions on him at first, he told Jessica Camerato of CSNPhilly.com during the Sixers Beach Bash community event this weekend.

This is the smart move by the Sixers — they are not competing for a title, the games in November have minimal meaning long term, bring him along slowly and make sure he can make each step along the way. Let’s see what he can do, then worry about how much run he can get in games that matter.

It’s going to be interesting to watch how Embiid, Ben Simmons, Nerlens Noel, and Jahlil Okafor all fit together up front — and which one of them gets traded this season.

Celtics’ Avery Bradley on defense: “Kyrie Irving, none of those guys scare me”

BOSTON, MA - MARCH 09:  Avery Bradley #0 of the Boston Celtics celebrates after scoring against the Memphis Grizzlies  during the first quarter at TD Garden on March 9, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Avery Bradley was first-team NBA All-Defensive team last season, and his coach Brad Stevens lobbied for him to get the honor. Bradley picks up guys full court, pesters, and plays physical — we can debate if he is as good defensively as his reputation, but guys like Damian Lillard think he’s tough to go up against.

Bradley, for his part, says he has no fear going up against the best. Here is what he said to Tom Westerholm of Masslive.com.

“I love the challenge,” Bradley said on Friday, making an appearance at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “I love going up against the best players. I don’t care who it is. I don’t care about getting embarrassed. I don’t care. Kyrie Irving, none of those guys scare me. I know some players in the NBA probably get butterflies before the game, but not me. I’m licking my lips. I come excited. They need to prepare for me at the end of the day. That’s how I think.”

That’s exactly the attitude you want an elite defender to have.

Bradley injured his hamstring in the first game of the playoffs last April and sat the rest of the Celtics’ one series. Then this summer his name came up in potential Jimmy Butler trade rumors (that deal never actually came close to getting off the ground). Expect Bradley to put that all behind him by the time training camp opens.

Watch highlights of LeBron James’ playoffs, Finals run

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LeBron James was dominant — the clear best player on the planet — when the Cleveland Cavaliers needed him most. That’s the reason Cleveland got its first major sports title in 52 years.

It’s the dead part of the NBA season — training camps don’t even open for a month — so why not enjoy a look back at LeBron’s amazing run to a legacy-defining NBA ring. Like you don’t have 15 minutes for this. What are you going to do, watch more preseason football?

It’s Joel Embiid’s turn to swat a little kid’s shot (VIDEO)

TARRYTOWN, NY - AUGUST 03: Joel Embiid #11 of the Philadelphia 76ers poses for a portrait during the 2014 NBA rookie photo shoot at MSG Training Center on August 3, 2014 in Tarrytown, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
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It’s a summer tradition — tall NBA players swatting away the shots of young kids at camps/clinics.

Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid has yet to step on an NBA court — this fall, finally? — but he is part of the youth tradition now, destroying this young man at the Sixers Beach Bash event Saturday.

This summer Embiid has arm wrestled Justin Bieber and looked good working out in an empty gym, and to add to that list here is Embiid overpowering an average guy at Beach Bash then throwing it down. The man at least provided a little more resistance than a chair.