It’s difficult to trust the Jazz, their valedictorian vibes. Of course they’re thriving in this kind of season, where wanting it matters more than ever, but what else are they supposed to do? It’s not unimpressive, in any season, to assemble a record like the one they have, nab the number one seed in the West. They’ve shown it: the mechanism works beautifully. The defense is characteristically excellent and the offense is almost as good. Donovan Mitchell’s not the most consistent star in the world, a floating foundation that travels slightly with the tide, but the Jazz have compensated for the pitch and tilt of his game and won consistently. Lately he’s been extra careful coming back from an ankle injury ahead of the postseason, and they’ve suffered few ill effects. Mike Conley’s been out too. It hasn’t mattered much. You can run the whole show through Bogdan Bogdanović in a pinch, it turns out.
And what, a skeptical public asks, this is supposed to unmelt our hearts? The Lakers are favorites, and if not LeBron’s crew, then it’s the Clippers. If the Nuggets still had Jamal Murray standing upright, you would place them alongside the L.A. teams. There’s nothing the Jazz, always solid during the regular season and always not quite great in the playoffs, can do right now to convince us they’re real title contenders. Even if that’s exactly what they are, we’re not going to call it ahead of time. They’re a lower-rent version of the Bucks; they’re the Lob City Clippers, the Raptors before they landed Kawhi and broke through. That famously importunate Utah fanbase makes their predicament seem more unjust than it is. (Respect The Jazz for what, exactly?) Mitchell and company are where a lot of good teams have been over the years. Every game matters but really only a handful of them do. Win a few in the Conference Finals and we’ll talk.
Meanwhile, the Phoenix Suns are a much fresher phenomenon. The engine’s old, you could stick Chris Paul under any hood and he’d run efficiently, but Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton, Mikal Bridges—most of the squad hasn’t even been to the postseason before. The same general principle applies to the Suns but it’s a lesser affliction: hardly anyone is fully convinced that they’re the best team in the West, but we’re also considerably less cynical about them. There is no typical Suns behavior in the playoffs because there have been no Suns in the playoffs since, my god, the Nash and Amar’e years. Jared Dudley could move laterally then, and Robin Lopez was barely old enough to drink around the world at Epcot. If we expect these Suns to fail, we at least don’t know what it looks like yet.
Another way of putting this is that we’re easy marks, charmed by novelty. We want to see what we haven’t before. And that lowers the bar, teases out our generosity. You’re willing to be optimistic about vacation cities, appreciate what perhaps isn’t all that remarkable. I find myself, during Suns games, mumbling insight-free idiot stuff like Chris Paul is perfect for this team and I’m happy for Monty Williams. This is the basketball fan equivalent of walking through the terminal thinking hey, this airport’s pretty cool. But it’s a pleasurable idiocy. I like that the Suns are good again, and that I don’t have a firm sense of how good they are. Being a tourist is fun.
And with the Jazz, I’m a 93-year-old literary critic who claims he hasn’t read a decent book since Herzog came out. This brings its own sour joy. Donovan Mitchell’s earnestness, Rudy Gobert’s persecution complex, people who get mad at Vernon Maxwell’s tweets. You put your thumb over all of it and laugh.
At some point, one that’s fast approaching, styles and sympathies become much less important. The regular season is for nattering and projection, fighting over imaginary lists and what various developments might mean. (The bulk of them end up not meaning anything.) Mostly we’re figuring out who the protagonists are, in this particular edition of the league. It’s an overlong prelude. The Jazz and Suns have established themselves as two different types of main character but they’re both defined by a kind of improbability, an anxiety about whether or not what they’ve been so far reflects what they’re truly made of.
The playoffs will sort that out for us. Seven-game series contain something approaching complete truth. It’s revealed and then the cycle begins again. We argue about what will be true another year from now, with the new information we have. Sympathies and hatreds accumulate. It’s compelling and exhausting. But the playoffs always arrive in time, when it seems like there’s too much discourse and not enough art, like we’ve been talking for many months about a movie we barely remember. It’s a relief to realize anew that what you make of teams doesn’t have any bearing on how they perform, that your perceptions are colored by vanity, stuff you’ve heard other people say. The humility is cleansing.
The Jazz and Suns are going to finish one-two in the West. I could tell you what I think that’s worth, but in less than two weeks’ time, it won’t matter at all. They finally get to decide for themselves what they are.