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Howard, Nash arrive for Lakers' championship push

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Howard, Nash arrive for Lakers' championship push

LOS ANGELES (AP) On one side of the Los Angeles Lakers' practice court, Dwight Howard is shooting free throws and talking defense with Pau Gasol. On the other end, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash are plotting out a pick-and-roll play with step-by-step precision.

And somewhere in the middle, Metta World Peace's mind is blowing.

``Everybody on the starting five has led their own team and been the go-to guy, the best player on a team,'' World Peace said. ``We've all been the man somewhere else, and now we're together. It's unbelievable. They're all rock stars, but everybody has a great attitude. It's a great time, great time for us.''

The Lakers are a fantasy basketball team brought to life this fall. Thanks to the nimble offseason moves of general manager Mitch Kupchak, Los Angeles has assembled one of the most accomplished starting lineups in NBA history, from Nash's MVP awards and Bryant's scoring superlatives to Howard's defensive dominance and Gasol's international acclaim.

Whether those accomplishments translate into championship success will be learned over the next several months. The Lakers are loaded with talent, but it's mostly confined to the top half of their roster - and they're not close to the NBA's youngest team.

But with 82 games and the postseason still in front of them, the Lakers are incredibly optimistic about the chance they've been given to add a 17th championship banner to the Staples Center rafters. Los Angeles has said almost nothing about Miami, Oklahoma City, Boston, San Antonio or the other NBA title contenders in the preseason, focusing entirely on the work still necessary to turn this disparate group of All-Stars into a cohesive unit.

``We're going to be a really good team, but we've got a lot of work in front of us right now,'' said Bryant, the fifth-leading scorer in NBA history beginning his 17th season with the Lakers. ``We're not close to a finished product, and the teams that we want to compete with have all had their main groups together longer. We've got to keep improving every day, every week, and learning how to play together.''

Howard, a six-time All-Star with the Orlando Magic, was acquired by Los Angeles in a four-team deal involving Andrew Bynum last August. Although Howard has just one year left on his contract, he has embraced the Lakers' tradition and history, making it clear he's quite determined to follow in the footsteps of Shaquille O'Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and George Mikan.

``This is a great franchise, and I'm so grateful to be a part of it,'' Howard said. ``It's a motivation to look up on the wall and see all of those great retired jerseys. It's just a blessing to be here. I still can't believe it, really.''

On the opening day of training camp, Bryant designated the easygoing center as his successor as the Lakers' franchise player when the 34-year-old Kobe walks away, perhaps just two years from now.

Bryant isn't done yet, however - and he has never played with a point guard of Nash's abilities. The two-time MVP agreed to move to Los Angeles in a sign-and-trade to stay closer to his three children in Phoenix, yet he seems to be an ideal fit with the Lakers, whose biggest positional deficiency has been at point guard for several years.

Nash still isn't sure how all of the Lakers' pieces will fit together, but after several mostly mediocre years with the Suns, the 38-year-old Canadian is grateful for a real chance to chase his first ring.

``We're covering a lot of ground in training camp, with the new offense and all the new guys,'' Nash said. ``We're getting into a competitive space, though. You can see how these guys are coming together. We know we've got a chance to be a really good team.''

Coach Mike Brown has the keys to this impressive vehicle, and he acknowledges he's mostly trying not to crash it. He has installed elements of the Princeton offense to encourage the Lakers to be mobile and creative on offense, but the defense-minded coach is most excited about a unit backstopped by Howard, the shot-blocking defensive dynamo.

``The big thing I've been telling these guys on defense is that they don't have to gamble,'' Howard said. ``We're solid on D. We just need to work hard for 24 seconds, get the rebound, and we're out.''

Much of that confidence is based on Howard, who is still a bit peeved he didn't win another Defensive Player of the Year award last spring despite his early end to the season for back surgery. Bynum thrived on defense at times, but the Lakers believe no center can match Howard's combination of athleticism and intelligence.

``He can make plays defensively that no big man outside of Bill Russell can make,'' Bryant said.

The Lakers' weaknesses might include their bench, which was the NBA's least productive group last season. Antawn Jamison, the high-scoring forward who has mostly spent his 15-year career as the best player on bad teams, should inject more offense as a reserve, while Jodie Meeks and Chris Duhon will provide a new look in the backcourt. Jordan Hill, Steve Blake and Devin Ebanks return from last year.

But it's tough to worry about the Lakers while Howard, Nash, Bryant, Gasol and World Peace are running drills together in practice.

They're still getting to know each other, but they all sense the potential to become something greater than the sum of their parts.

``You don't get an opportunity like this too often in life,'' Gasol said. ``We're all excited to go on this journey together.''

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Bradley Beal makes most of his opportunity in first All-Star Game

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Associated Press

Bradley Beal makes most of his opportunity in first All-Star Game

Bradley Beal may have had a slow start in the three-point contest on Saturday night, but in Sunday's All-Star Game he worked quickly to make the most of his relatively small window of playing time.

Beal checked in for the first time with 5:45 left in the first quarter and less than 25 seconds later had his first points on a two-handed dunk assisted by LeBron James.

In his All-Star debut, Beal helped lead Team LeBron to a 148-145 victory over Team Stephen as the league utilizied a new format for the annual showcase.

RELATED: BEAL BOUNCED EARLY IN THREE-POINT CONTEST

Beal finished with 14 points and a steal in a productive night. He shot 5-for-10 from the field and an impressive 4-for-8 from long range. 

Beal also tried to get a travelling call from the refs on Karl-Anthony Towns. Yeah, that's not likely to happen in an All-Star Game:

Beal more than held his own and only played 16 minutes, which was good considering he has logged the fifth-most minutes of any player so far this season. A realistic best-case scenario was a strong showing and a short night and that's exactly what he got.

Not only does Beal play a lot of minutes, the Wizards need him now more than ever with John Wall's injury. He needs whatever rest he can get during this All-Star break.

Speaking of Wall, he was in the house despite being in the middle of his rehab from left knee surgery. Per usual, Wall was shining bright:

RELATED: BEST WIZARDS/BULLETS MOMENTS ON ALL-STAR SATURDAY NIGHT

The All-Star Game wasn't all about Beal, of course. Here are some other things that stood out...

*The new format and increased financial incentive were intended to make the game more competitive and that's what happened late in the fourth quarter. Usually, that's how these things go where the players will start trying at the end. But this time it seemed to be up a few levels and it was fun to watch. 

Both teams scored in the 140s, so it wasn't exactly a defensive battle. No matter what the league does, the players will only try so hard for so long. The main goal of everyone's is to not get injured in a game that ultimately doesn't count for anything. Still, this was different and appears to have been a success.

*While everyone was focusing on the reunion of LeBron and Kyrie Irving the best beef was Joel Embiid vs. Russell Westbrook. Those two have traded waves to taunt each other at the end of wins in head-to-head matchups and it was clear on Sunday they still don't like each other. Westbrook tried to dunk all over Embiid in the first half, only to get blocked at the rim.

Westbrook's determination to dunk on Embiid was out of the ordinary for an All-Star Game. It was obvious what was on his mind:

*Irving's handles are simply ridiculous. Check out this fake behind-the-back move he pulled with Giannis Antetkounmpo guarding him. Yes, it didn't fool the defender but it was impressive nonetheless:

*LeBron is 33 years old, yet he was still running up and down the court faster than anyone and leaping above the rim to thrown down alley-oop after alley-oop. It is truly amazing and everyone should enjoy watching him while they can, regardless of whether they like the guy or not.

This was one of his dunks:

LeBron took home MVP with a game-high 29 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and a steal.

*The pregame show was quite bad. It was anchored by comedians Kevin Hart and Rob Riggle and, though they had some funny jokes, it lasted nearly 30 minutes. The whole thing was pretty much universally panned on social media. Fergie's national anthem was also roasted by the masses.

*The halftime show was much better. It began with N.E.R.D taking it back to their older days with 'Lapdance,' went to Migos performing 'Stir Fry' and swung back to N.E.R.D. who did their latest hit 'Lemon.' 

RELATED: LATEST 2018 NBA MOCK DRAFT

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The NBA All-Star pregame introductions were, uh, something

The NBA All-Star pregame introductions were, uh, something

Whoever put together the NBA All-Star Game player introductions has some 'splainin to do. 

The NBA introduced a kinda-full Staples Center to their 2018 All-Stars about an hour ago, and boy was it weird. There were a lot of dancers in different themed costumes. Kevin Hart was screaming. Rob Riggle was screaming. Ludacris showed up? Hey! Did you know that the Barenaked Ladies are still a band? The NBA would like you to know they're still around.  The whole thing was like when you're at an art museum and you're told that abstract piece in the corner is actually really meaningful but you gotta be honest, you don't get it. 

Anyways, the internet hated it. Here are some highlights from the internet hating it:

The lesson here is that you never need Kevin Hart and Rob Riggle. One will do.