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Lakers

Lakers still processing how to improve title chances

Coach Frank Vogel and veteran center Dwight Howard chat during a break in play during a game earlier this season.
Coach Frank Vogel and veteran center Dwight Howard have helped the Lakers attain the best record in the West as the season heads toward the playoff chase.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

During his All-Star game news conference, Lakers coach Frank Vogel said his family was upset with him for coaching the team with the best record in the Western Conference this season instead of next season.

His team’s winning record meant his staff was selected to coach in the All-Star game, but a staff can’t coach two years in a row, and next year’s contest is in Indiana, where Vogel and his family spent nearly a decade.

It was just a little joke, though.

Vogel and his team worked hard during the last five months to ensure their position in the standings. He didn’t make any plans for All-Star weekend, knowing there was a good chance he would be busy. Their goal of winning a championship becomes more acute with each passing day.

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“We have two of the best players in the world and a great support system around them,” Vogel said. “To reach the conference finals, the NBA Finals and win a championship, a lot of things have to fall your way. I’m hopeful we’re able to achieve that.”

Most of the team will have had a full week off when they reconvene on Thursday for the final portion of the season. Those who didn’t because they were part of All-Star weekend still got a break.

“By the commissioner allowing an actual week to happen,” James said of the change from four days off to a full week. “With that change, it’s definitely helped out a lot not only for the guys that are not a part of All-Star weekend, but for the guys that are part of it. I try to find at least a couple days to kind of decompress and get away from the game.”

The group who were part of the game included Dwight Howard, who participated in Saturday’s dunk contest; James; Anthony Davis, who played in the game; and the entire Lakers staff, which coached Team LeBron.

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At 41-12, the Lakers are four games ahead of the Denver Nuggets for best record in the Western Conference. They will immediately find themselves thrown into a slate of challenging games. They’ll face the Memphis Grizzlies at Staples Center on Friday and then host the Boston Celtics, who beat them in Boston, on Sunday. March features three teams the Lakers have yet to defeat — the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Clippers.

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s outstanding skills are one reason why the Milwaukee Bucks are fully capable of beating the Lakers or Clippers for the NBA title.

Each loss the Lakers suffered before the break came with a measure of panic and caution. They worried the most when their defensive intensity slipped. That seemed to recover that intensity in the weeks before the break.

“I think we kind of got our defensive intensity back a little bit,” Davis said last week after a Wednesday win over the Denver Nuggets. “I think that’s something that we’re going to continue to have in the ... ‘second half’ of the season. So to see us get back to our defensive ways — not just this game, but last game as well — is definitely inspiring and something that we got to keep going.”

James and Davis both felt good about where the Lakers were heading into the break. Their front office did, too. The Lakers dipped their toes in the trade market but weren’t willing to pay the high cost of acquiring some of the league’s available players. They are still keeping an eye on potential buyout candidates and will need to sign anyone by March 1 if they are to be eligible for the playoffs.

Whether additions are made, the team knows its goal. As far as James is concerned, the process is what truly matters.

“You understand you played some good basketball along the way, played some not good basketball,” he said. “But you want to continue to get better and continue to trust the process. We look forward to when we get back, getting back on the floor and seeing how far we’ll continue to grow.”


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