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

Jan 18, 2013, 2:10 PM EDT

Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash

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.

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