Nothing has been more amusing over the past five to 10 years than to watch the way the NBA and its greatest media proponents have worked at cross purposes as regards to the notion of the individual game.
On the one hand, every game is reviewed as an instant referendum of trends, truths and future developments in the sport because the 24/7 beast must be fed. On the other, the NBA’s 30 constituent teams have concluded that individual games have limits to their importance, and in some cases, even entire seasons. It’s as if every game is vitally important and occasionally meaningless at the same time.
Thus, we come upon Lakers-Warriors on Christmas Day as an epochal battle between LeBron James and his last remaining ghost, the Golden State Warriors team that has beaten him three times in four NBA Finals and 22 times in 31 games.
It is, of course, no such thing. It’s a fun game to watch for all that, among the 81 wrapped around it, and fun is still the best reason we bother with any of this. But its import will be much overplayed, and not just because of the cheap excuse that “that’s what we do.”
But, and you might not have noticed this, this is an intriguing game because the rest of the Western Conference has caught up with the dynasty-in-the-making, at least in the standings, with the Warriors in their current arrhythmic state. As day dawned Friday, not only were the Warriors behind both the Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder, but the Warriors have just a 2½-game gap between themselves and a historically compressed field in which four games separate the Lakers in fourth and the Jimmy Butler-less Minnesota Timberwolves in 14th.
This all could become one more useless snapshot of basketball in a day, as some of those 11 teams eventually will fall off the pace, either by chance or choice. It also could change if the Warriors embrace DeMarcus Cousins to such a point that their offense suddenly becomes properly spaced again and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green find their shooting eye from distance. That, you see, has become a thing people worry about while the Warriors’ middle-of-the-road defense continues to be ignored as a symptom for the team’s slowest start in the championship era.
But maybe the Warriors can be a more interesting team with evident flaws, if only because the rest of the West has risen up to meet them. Golden State is still better than the other contenders when playing with a full complement, and as they should, but the Warriors are finding every game is harder, and that the teams with winning records no longer fear them.
They are 8-9 against teams with those winning records, with a point differential of minus-2.5, and 13-2 against the others, with a point differential of plus-11.2. In short, they are beating bad teams by the same margin as they beat then entire league two years ago, and while Stephen Curry’s injury mattered a lot, so do other injuries to other players.
In this new, more egalitarian NBA, the Warriors are trying like everyone else to find their pace, and the idea that they don’t approach every game with the requisite intensity might not be as valid as the fact that their rising tide for four years has raised so many other boats. The league has chased the Warriors and now can reach out and touch them, and that might end up being a more compelling fact than the 32nd meeting between them and a LeBron James-led team.
The Warriors aren’t yet like everyone else, but they're now close enough to upper half of the league that they have become in an odd way a different and more compelling watch. That is a fact that will last longer than the Christmas Day game. The Warriors no longer are a stand-alone event but part of a greater and more fascinating whole.