Coming out of the All-Star break, the Miami Heat appears ready to make another run at the NBA Finals.
HOUSTON — Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers turned their attention Monday from bad basketball and trade talk to more somber matters.
The death of Jerry Buss, their longtime owner, was a blow for a franchise that was so often in the championship chase under his leadership. The Bryant-Pau Gasol-Dwight Howard-Steve Nash combination hasn’t worked for the high-profile team.
The Lakers are 25-29, in 10th place in the Western Conference, miles behind the Los Angeles Clippers in their division and their own building. Gasol is hurt and Howard has been unhappy, leading to speculation he could be dealt before Thursday’s trade deadline even though Lakers officials have said otherwise.
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Yet Bryant spoke confidently of a turnaround Sunday after the All-Star Game.
“I think we’ve been playing pretty well coming into the break,” Bryant said. “We laid a couple of eggs there against the Celtics and the Clippers, but all in all we’ve been playing pretty well, much better than we have been. We just have to continue to improve and we’ll do much better in the second half.”
It starts Tuesday, with the Lakers looking to get back on track, the defending champion Miami Heat in command in the East and LeBron James seemingly in command of everyone.
Bryant blocked James’ shots twice in the final minutes of the West’s 143-138 victory over the East on Sunday in the All-Star Game. It was a rare failure for James, who has been sensational for most of the season and whose Heat has hit its stride. Miami ran off seven straight victories going into the break.
“We just want to play our game,” James said. “We want to continue to get better each and every game. Not waste an opportunity when we get on the floor. Play as a team and if we do that, we’ll be fine.”
The Heat overwhelmed the Thunder in Oklahoma City on Thursday in an NBA Finals rematch, improving to 13-11 on the road. All-Star forward Chris Bosh said Miami is a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, believing the Heat still has to put together a string of road victories to prove it is really in championship form.
“Just the fact that we had room to improve, we can play better on the road and we’re still first in the East, that means a lot to us and that means we can get a lot better,” Bosh said.
New York is the closest challenger in the standings, while Indiana and Chicago have already beaten Miami this season and could become stronger with Danny Granger soon returning to the Pacers and perhaps injured Derrick Rose coming back to the Bulls at some point.
San Antonio, with the league’s best record at 42-12; Oklahoma City; and the Clippers are the teams in best position to face the Heat if its reaches its third straight Finals. The Lakers were considered a candidate, but that was long ago.
The summer acquisitions of Howard and Nash were supposed to get the Lakers right back to the top. But Nash was hurt early and Howard has not fully recovered from back surgery, adding a torn labrum in his right shoulder to his problems.
Howard has not fit well in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and has acknowledged not always having fun. What’s more, he has given the Lakers no guarantee he will return when he becomes a free agent in July. But would the Lakers deal a player who was the NBA’s dominant big man before his injuries?
“I don’t know what they are going to do. But at this point, it doesn’t matter,” Bryant said. “What matters to us is what we do on Wednesday and go from there. That’s the most important thing. That’s my message to the team, is that you can’t worry about the future, you can’t worry about the past. You just have to focus on the present.”
Point guard Chris Paul will also be a free agent in July, yet the Clippers have far less reason to think he would bolt. They have built a team that has been as good as any when healthy.
• Sunday’s All-Star Game on TNT was seen by an average of 8 million viewers, up 13 percent from the 2012 game, Bloomberg News reported.
• The Philadelphia 76ers signed guard Jeremy Pargo, a former Gonzaga player, for the remainder of the season. Pargo, 26, was playing for the Sixers on a 10-day contract and averaged 8 points and 2.7 assists in three games. Earlier this season, Pargo played in 25 games for Cleveland and averaged 7.8 points.