If Houston and Golden State do as expected and close out their second round playoff series at home Tuesday evening, we will have re-learned a valuable lesson we seem desperately to want to forget.
That in the NBA, it’s hard to be the king, but it’s exponentially more difficult to kill the king.
The NBA has always been aggressively monarchical that way – a steady stream of dynasties and dynast-ettes that only a few times have included as many as two teams simultaneously, usually the Lakers and Celtics.
But as we saw again Monday, even the players give in to the gravitational pull of the established order. The Philadelphia 76ers beat the Boston Celtics to stay hanging from the cliff’s edge, as young and precocious teams often do when faced with desperation, while the Toronto Raptors simply surrendered to the inevitable and mailed in the end of their sweep to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And in the West, the much-raved-about Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans are looking at a brief and pitiless end to their series against the Rockets and Warriors. We painted them as worthy counterpunchers and they have, with all due respect to their rises from potential nonentity-hood, not met the challenges of the second rung.
Not because their players lack heart or skill (although Toronto’s ventricles seem awfully clogged right now) or because their coaches have suddenly become stupid. Those are idiotic tropes pundits use when they need to kill a day burying the unworthy.
They lost or are about to lose in almost record time (assuming the Rockets and Warriors hold serve, only three quarterfinal series have produced fewer total games since the format changed to best-of-seven in 1967) because they came in as underdogs in a sport that elevates favorites.
Even the Warriors did not become the Warriors overnight. This is their sixth year as a playoff team since the day Andre Iguodala became the first free agent ever to say, “I’d like to play . . . THERE.” Mark Jackson changed the attitude and defensive focus after decades of “let’s play to 135,” then Steve Kerr changed the offense to allow them to do both, then they won, nearly won again, lured Kevin Durant, won again and are now in their fourth consecutive run with the best team.
Not the best player, or the best singular force. That remains LeBron James, who apparently has been promoted to extinct creature in his dismemberments of the much-hyped Raptors and Indiana Pacers.
But the Warriors have replaced the Spurs, who replaced the Heat, who replaced the Lakers, who replaced the Bulls, who replaced the Pistons, who replaced the Lakers and Celtics. And that takes you back to the start of the 1980s.
In short, the chalk is advancing, even if it doesn’t necessarily correspond to the seeds. Higher seeds are of course helpful but in the devalued regular season era being second or fourth isn’t the same as being the second or fourth-best team. Those who were born to the purple or seized it remain so for multiple years, and the road to the palace is strewn with the bodies of intriguing challengers who ultimately weren’t.
We should know that by now, but we get sucked into “The Process” and “Toronto’s time has finally come” and “Fifty Threes Shall Set Us Free,” and we keep getting sucked in because we don’t accept the history of the league which is simply this:
It takes a lot more than want-to and fresh faces to kill the king, because the king strikes back with better weapons.