If the past five months have been one long August, everybody inside and nothing on TV, the world legible only as accumulating grime on the windowpanes, then perhaps tunneling further into the hell of August itself will produce what we’ve been starved for all this time. I would like my living expenses comped, if we’re putting in requests. Living has been less than satisfactory lately. Failing that, we’ve got basketball at an unusual time, which is nice, and if this encourages the NBA to permanently shift their schedule, kick the season off around Christmas on a permanent basis, even better. Take whatever scarce Ws you can find these days. Share them with the rest of us.
But it’s a little bit weird, right? Like checking the news while you’re on vacation. It’s less real with the coaches in polos and half-zips, threatened with divorce and threatening doomed Coloradoan gubernatorial runs, post-quarter interviews conducted at the volume people talk at in infomercials, the Lakers and Bucks having rolled out of the wrong side of bed, perhaps the wrong bed altogether, and unable to shake off the stress dream residue even at one in the afternoon. That is by far the weirdest thing. The consensus two best teams in the league don’t look very good.
With the Warriors hobbled and dismantled, we knew this was going to be one of those up-for-grabs years. The NBA moves in broadly predictable cycles. Superteams rise and fall and in the wake of their decline there are brief periods of uncertainty. The Pistons squeeze their back-to-back titles in after the Lakers and Celtics fall off, and before Jordan takes over the league. The Spurs fill the post-Jordan gap and spend the next two decades stepping in whenever there’s no hegemon or duopoly. (In fact, the 2014 Spurs would be a decent bet to win a championship this year.) The Lakers and Bucks aren’t sure things, we’ve spent most of the season wondering if they’re meaningfully better than the hot and cold Clippers, but when the league left off in mid-March, they had established themselves as two halves of the most likely Finals matchup. Giannis was the obvious MVP choice; LeBron and Anthony Davis were a nigh unstoppable twosome. That once-solid reality has come apart in the humid Orlando air.
This isn’t to overreact to either team being down 1-0 in their first round playoff series. The Bucks are definitely going to beat the Magic, count on it, and though the Lakers got a bit of a raw deal drawing a much better than their record Portland squad this early, they should be able to overcome Dame, Nurk, and a broken-backed C.J. McCollum. The rather shallow predicament Milwaukee and L.A. find themselves in isn’t the headline; it’s that they’re simply not playing all that well. That mechanistic Mike Budenholzer offense in which good shots seemed to materialize almost by themselves is now more of a conscious process—wait, what’s the next step here? And some of the confidence the Lakers’ role players were bursting with while they were trouncing the rest of the league has seeped out. Call it rhythm, momentum, whatever: neither squad has it anymore. Some of that’s perception, and perception doesn’t move the needle—teams don’t win games because we think they’re going to—but it’s a real and useful thing to have a routine that’s working for you. Whatever part of your job you can treat as nearly automatic makes the rest of the job easier.
It’s not unusual for top seeds to still be getting their sea legs early in the postseason. They’ve often spent most of February and March in standby mode while their counterparts have been cooking just to get into the playoffs. (The Blazers in particular are red hot.) But one of the defining features of great teams is that, because their ceiling is higher than their opponent’s, their games typically come down to how they perform. There’s not a lot you can do about the Davis-LeBron pick and roll, or the Bucks when they’re creating a bounty open shots. We recently saw this, at a level few teams in league history have ever approached, with the Warriors. If you trapped Steph Curry beyond the arc, suddenly Draymond Green was running a 4-on-3 drill. If you left Klay Thompson, he’d destroy you from deep. If you minded all three of those guys simultaneously, Kevin Durant could score in isolation against anybody. And at the other end, they were terrifyingly long and opportunistic. Playing against them was a wholly demoralizing experience. Their ultimate success was inevitable. (Provided, of course, their stars stayed healthy.)
The Lakers and Bucks have never been that way, but they were impressive enough from November to March that they figured to walk to at least the Conference Finals without too much trouble. They still totally can and probably will do that, but what they’ve lost over the course of the break and hinted toward with their (very) early playoff struggles is that they’re more likely to trip themselves up than they would have been had the season progressed without interruption, were they playing these games in April instead of August. It’s a blip, maybe, but championships runs are fragile endeavors; you want to get the ostensibly easy stuff out of the way quickly, so you have a maximum of energy for when the going gets tough. The number one seeds in each conference appear to be taking the circuitous route to the peaks they’ll need to find in later rounds. There’s time for that, but it’s far from abundant.