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.

Playoff Preview: Four questions to answer about Hawks vs. Cavaliers

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 01:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks to drive against Thabo Sefolosha #25 of the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on April 1, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  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 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Last season this big playoff showdown — the top two seeds in the East — turned into a rout as Cleveland swept Atlanta out of the playoffs. This time around both teams are healthier: The Cavaliers have Kevin Love and a healthy Kyrie Irving; the Hawks have Thabo Sefolosha back, Kyle Korver (knocked out of the series in Game 2) and a healthy Paul Millsap. Here are three things to keep an eye on through this series, followed by a prediction.

1) Can Atlanta slow LeBron James? The key to the Hawks’ chances in this series is their defense, which ranked second in the NBA over the course of the season and was Spurs-like after the All-Star break. Atlanta held Boston to 38 percent shooting for that five-game series. However, when the Hawks and Cavs met this regular season LeBron averaged 27.3 points and shot 58 percent. Atlanta did not have an answer for him. Thabo Sefolosha (who missed this playoff series last year, thank you NYPD) will draw time on him, as will Kent Bazemore and Paul Millsap. None of them are a great matchup. The Hawks need to limit LeBron’s transition opportunities, and they need to force him to be a jump shooter — he got 14 points per game in the paint against Detroit, Atlanta has to limit that. Which is much easier said than done. And sometimes he just nails the jumper anyway (although he did struggle with it vs. Detroit). LeBron is going to get his; Atlanta has to at least make him work for it and be less efficient.

2) Who wins the Kyrie Irving vs. Jeff Teague point guard matchup? As good as that LeBron guy was, Irving was the Cavaliers best player and the guy knocking down key shots in the first round against Detroit. Irving was hot from deep in the first round, hitting 16-of -34 from three. However, Irving can over-dribble and not move the ball at times, which is death against the Hawks defense. The Cavs need to beat Atlanta with passing. Teague needs to defend Irving with energy, but he must score as well and make Irving work on the defensive end. Teague led the Hawks with 16.5 points per game against Boston, and in the Hawks three games against Cleveland this season averaged 20.7 points and 7.3 assists. For the Hawks to have any chance Teague has to play this matchup to a standstill.

3) Can Atlanta keep Cleveland off the offensive glass? Despite the considerable rebounding prowess of Millsap, the Hawks were the sixth worst defensive rebounding team in the league this season. Cleveland was a top 10 offensive rebounding team this season, and their starting lineup with Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love can generate a lot of second chance looks. Which is something the Hawks simply cannot afford this series — it’s tough enough to defend the Cavaliers without giving them second chances. In those regular season matchups, the Hawks struggled with this, which is part of the reason the Cavaliers swept all three meetings.

4) Might this be Kevin Love’s breakout series? This is a good matchup for Love, despite the Hawks having some good individual defenders. Atlanta often will switch pick-and-rolls, which should allow Love to either pop out for a clean look at a jumper, or head to the post and overwhelm a smaller defender. Love and Irving in the pick-and-roll (with LeBron still hanging out on the court as a distraction) could be challenging for Atlanta to stop. However, the real key for Love is that he’s going to have to defend the All-Star Millsap — if Love can do a solid job there the Cavaliers odds of winning go way up.

Prediction: Cavaliers in five. These are not going to be easy games for Cleveland, you’re far more likely to see six games in this series rather than another sweep. But Atlanta needs everything to go perfectly in this series to win, and the Cavaliers have a focused LeBron James who is not going to let that happen.

Report: Latest Kings’ coaching interview? David Blatt.

PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 28:  Head coach David Blatt of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on December 28, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.  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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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For those of you keeping tabs, so far the Sacramento Kings coaching search has included at least contact and sometimes interviews with Mark Jackson, Luke Walton, Nate McMillan, Vinny Del Negro, Mike Woodson, Sam Mitchell, Kevin McHale, and Patrick Ewing. And that’s the ones we know about.

Now one more name gets added to the list: David Blatt. From Marc Stein of ESPN:

Sources told ESPN.com that Blatt will become the latest in a string of recent head coaches to interview for the post, with the Kings determined to commission a broad search in their hunt for George Karl’s replacement.

Blatt has also interviewed for the New York Knicks job and is rumored to be still in consideration, although Blatt does not meet Phil Jackson’s requirements of having a relationship with Jackson or wanting to run the triangle.

The top priority for whoever becomes the Kings next coach is to establish a strong relationship with DeMarcus Cousins, the team’s top 10 NBA talent but also a mercurial person. Cousins did not want George Karl to be hired as coach, owner Vivek Ranadive did that anyway (having already let go of Cousins’ favorite Mike Malone), then when Karl talked about “no player being untradable” and pushing that narrative the relationship between coach and star was dead. The team never recovered.

The next coach has to get Cousins on his side. Is Blatt a guy who can do that? In Cleveland, he came in with an “I won a lot in Europe you must respect me” attitude — rather than being humble and trying to earn that respect, ala Steve Kerr in Golden State — and LeBron James and the rest of the Cavaliers never bought in. Blatt never had that locker room. Can Blatt change? Will he have learned from that mistake?

The Kings are wisely doing a broad and thorough coaching search, so it may be a while before we find out if Vlade Divac and the Sacramento brain trust think Blatt has learned those hard lessons.

Report: Pacers’ coach Frank Vogel’s contract up, no talks yet about extension

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 26:  Head Coach Frank Vogel of the Indiana Pacers shouts to an official in the first half of Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Toronto Raptors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on April 26, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Frank Vogel is one of the 10 best coaches in the NBA. The Indiana Pacers are better with him in the big chair.

But is he going to be back next season?

Probably, only because it’s hard to imagine otherwise, but the door has been opened reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Are the Pacers’ serious? Team president Larry Bird wouldn’t answer the question, but neither did he throw water on the rumor to put the flames out.

Vogel wouldn’t need to worry about employment, he would instantly jump to near the top of every coaching search list out there (and the ones that will come up next year).

The question is, why would the Pacers do this? Can you pick apart is end-of-game management in Game 4, and question his rotations? Sure. Did he make a mistake with his timeout call late in Game 7? Probably. He’s not perfect.

However, this is a team whose second and third best players are Monta Ellis and George Hill, and they have a thin bench — Vogel did more with less he was given by Larry Bird than just about any coach could have. This team has limitations and he has done a fantastic job putting players in positions where they could succeed.

I imagine in a couple of weeks the Pacers will announce a new deal with Vogel. But the door is now open to change.

Raptors hang on through rough finish to beat Pacers 89-84, advance to second round

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To paraphrase the great Rasheed Wallace: “Both teams played hard. Not well, but both teams played hard.”

Game 7s can be filled with tight play and poor decisions, and the final few minutes of this Game 7 between the Raptors and Pacers certainly saw that. It saw the Raptors score just 11 fourth quarter points — and saw the referees swallow their whistles on a clear foul that would have given the Pacers a better chance at a win — but none of that matters to a Toronto fan base starved for a playoff series win.

They don’t care about style points, just give them the “W.” The Raptors and their fans can finally exhale.

Toronto had a 16-point lead, tried desperately to run out the clock in the final five minutes, and in doing so opened the door again for Indiana and made it tight at the end, but Toronto hung on for an 89-84 win.

Toronto wins the series and now advances on to the second round for the first time since the Vince Carter era. The Raptors will face the Heat starting this Tuesday at home in Toronto.

“I think everybody wrote the Raptors off and gave us up for dead,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said after the win. “But that locker room is full of fighters and scrappers and guys that are really getting into it now.”

Casey is wrong in the micro — I certainly don’t remember any “Toronto can’t win Game 7 at home” stories in the press — but right in the macro that his team carried a heavy “they can’t get out of the first round” burden all season, a reputation that almost was an anchor for them in the closing minutes of this game.

But they survived. And advanced.

Paul George was the best player on the floor and finished the game with 26 points, but it was the play he didn’t make (and the foul the Raptors got away with on that play) that will be the talk of Game 7.

Toronto had a small lead most of the game, but a couple of runs (one in the third quarter, another early in the fourth) had stretched it out to 16. Leading the way was DeMar DeRozan, who wasn’t efficient (10-of-32 shooting) but did put up 30 points and was attacking hard. The other key in this game for the Raptors was on the glass where they grabbed the offensive rebound on 35 percent of their missed shots, which led to 17 second-chance points on the night.

But everyone knew Toronto was not going to just be able to coast in for the win. It was going to be hard.

With five minutes left Toronto started to try to run out the clock — Shaquille O’Neal called it “prevent offense” — and the team wouldn’t even really start its attack until there were five seconds or so on the clock. The result was, predictably enough, difficult and contested shots. Meanwhile, the Pacers kept hitting shots and went on a 15-2 run, with Solomon Hill throwing down a huge dunk and Monta Ellis hitting a three that made it a three-point game with 2:36 left.

Then Kyle Lowry answered with a driving layup that had the Raptors up 87-82 with 2:10 left. That would be the last bucket of the game.

Indiana had its chances, but both Ellis and George had turnovers.

George had a chance with the team down 5 and :26 seconds left to go for a quick two and then play the foul game, but as he drove and got cut off he went up and rather than bank in a 10-footer he threw a lot to Ian Mahinmi — and DeRozan shoved Mahinmi while the big man was in the air, causing the pass to go sailing over Mahinmi’s head. It was a clear foul by DeRozan that was not called — and George should have just shot the ball there — but with that the Pacers chances few away as well.

It wasn’t pretty for the Raptors. They do not care. Their loyal and long-suffering fans were rewarded with a first round win, that monkey is off their backs.

But they are going to have to play a lot better and a lot looser against a veteran Miami team if the Raptors want to make the franchise’s first-ever conference finals.